Birch Narrows isn’t letting distance stop them from helping their youth
- NC Raine | March 03, 2022
For the past few months, a group of youth at Birch Narrows Dene Nation are using technology to link up with a counsellor and work on their mental health.
The seven teenagers are opening up to registered social worker Ruth Ann Thomas, who does adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) recovery work, primarily with northern communities and Indigenous youth.
“We try to build skills,” said Thomas. “People who are in crisis on a continual or regular basis, people who have addictions, or feel like they have no control over their life in general, and don’t have good coping strategies – the first thing we do is build skills towards calm. Once we build those skills, then we can talk about adverse childhood experiences.”
ACEs encompass various forms of physical and emotional abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction experienced in childhood. Often the root cause of these experiences typically runs deep, she explained.
“One of the main reasons we started this group, the adult population (Indigenous communities or communities that live in poverty) often experience emotional and behavioural issues that stem from abuse and trauma they themselves experienced as children,” said Caitlin Cottrell, director of health and social programs at Birch Narrows.
“Addressing adverse childhood experiences at an early age is really imperative,” said Cottrell.
According to Cottrell, ACEs can lay the groundwork for common challenges like substance abuse, low levels of education, high incarceration and recidivism rates.
Both Cottrell and Thomas want to help provide coping and communication skills to allow youth to deal with challenges in a healthy way.
In November, Thomas made the six-hour trip from Saskatoon to meet the youth group in person.
Establishing trust with the youth from the start is essential, she said. While there she shared her recovery story with them.
“I use the word ‘normalize.’” said Thomas. “(To) help them understand they aren’t the only ones to have experienced this. And that they’re not the ones who are at fault.”
After building that connection with the group, Thomas has been conducting weekly group sessions via Zoom. Most of the kids know each other and are familiar with each other’s personal lives, which makes it a safe space where they can be open and vulnerable, she said.
“They are just so brave,” said Thomas. “You can sometimes watch the puzzle pieces click into place ... For them, it has to feel good. It has to reduce the shame and blame, that ‘I’m not the only kid who feels like this’.”
Even though they’re only a few months into the sessions, impacts are starting to manifest on the youth.
“They’re opening up more,” she said. “I’m seeing them find solidarity with each other.”
As it continues, hope is that the youth will no longer see themselves as victims, but survivors.