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The CatalystConversations on Mental Health

First Nations First Aiders support individuals and strengthen communities

Those who teach Mental Health First Aid in First Nations communities have lived experience with trauma. Roger Chum’s experience is a stark example.

“I have a personal story,” said Chum, a member of the Omushkego Moose Cree First Nation near James Bay, and a residential school survivor. “I tried to take my life, too, as a young man because of all the trauma I was walking with.”

He was saved with the support of others, and now, years later, he’s a counsellor in the First People’s Centre at Canadore College in North Bay. He also travels to communities across Canada to co-facilitate sessions in the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s (MHCC’s) Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) First Nations program, where he sees reflections of his own pain in others.

“The common themes in all the training I’ve done — in communities from B.C. to Nova Scotia to Prince Edward Island to Ontario — seem to be suicide, racism, and discrimination that people face when they’re trying to walk in two worlds, trying to live in general Canadian society but keeping their cultural and Indigenous identity at the same time, trying to balance that,” Chum said.

mhfa first nations logo

He estimates that he’s trained about 2,700 people to be Mental Health First Aiders since the mid-2010s, when he completed training to be a MHFA First Nations co-facilitator. In turn, those First Aiders have gone on to support thousands of people in their communities. When those who receive support to help survive their own psychological turmoil go on to help others, it creates a cycle of support that strengthens entire communities.

What sets MHFA First Nations apart
Today, about 70 First Nations co-facilitators provide MFHA training across Canada, primarily in First Nations communities but also elsewhere. Chum, for example, continues to conduct sessions for members of the Greater Sudbury Police Services, most of whom are non-Indigenous.

MHFA is a series of actions that people can take to support those who may be experiencing a crisis or decline in their mental health. While the commission offers various MHFA programs, none are quite like MHFA First Nations.

The MHCC conducts regular reviews of the course. A recent update adapted its broader objectives beyond regular MHFA training, which is very much about the skills participants might use and the actions they might take to support someone whose mental health is declining.

Some areas of the MHFA First Nations coursenow have a lot to do with building community through activities that engage the group as a whole and addressing systemic issues that have impacted First Nations people more directly — things like social determinants of health, systemic racism, and colonization.

Learning to train Mental Health First Aiders
The program’s ongoing success relies on two First Nations master trainers, Amanda Petit and Mary Wabano-McKay. These trainers teach the course First Nations people take to become MHFA co-facilitators, who in turn teach community members to be Mental Health First Aiders.

“I couldn’t imagine taking a course such as MHFA First Nations and having it delivered by a non-Indigenous person,” said Wabano-McKay, a Mushkegowuk (Cree from Attawapiskat First Nation), who lives in Sault Ste. Marie and works for Algoma University as vice-president of Nyaagaaniid — student success and Anishinaabe initiatives. “How could they relate to the lived experience and life experiences of First Nations people without having that lived experience?”

She added that Indigenous master trainers “serve as positive role models in communities among our peers and colleagues to show that not only did we inherit a lot of loss, grief, and trauma, we’ve also inherited resiliency, strength, and determination. Those things are imbued in the co-facilitators that deliver the MHFA First Nations course across the country.”

To become a co-facilitator, candidates go through 20 hours of group instruction, then spend two days working one-on-one with master trainers to go deeper into the material and demonstrate that they can deliver the MHFA First Nations course. To be accredited as a co-facilitator, they must complete further requirements within one year.

Impacts, obstacles, ways forward
The course content to become a co-facilitator can be disturbing, Wabano-McKay pointed out. In addition to going through the colonial legacy of TB hospitals, residential schools, the 60s Scoop, and other intergenerational traumas, it covers “how all of these are continuing to have serious impacts on First Nations people, on overall wellness, on mental health — from anxiety and depression to substance use and psychotic disorders.

“Such material can often be triggering for those who take the course,” she said, which is why co-facilitators are on site when an MHFA First Nations workshop is held. Community Elders are also invited to provide further support to participants, as needed.

Another potential obstacle for co-facilitator training is for candidates to get past their own stigmas about mental health and understand that everyone has it.

For co-facilitator Laurie Belcourt, a Treaty 8 Nations of Alberta employee from Bigstone Cree Nation, the course was a revelation.

“It changed who I was,” she said. “The way I think about people, the way I interact with people, it’s different. I’m a lot more understanding, I’m a lot more empathetic. It’s helped me understand that people have mental health problems. They’re not just looking for attention; they just don’t know how to deal with what’s going on.”

Through the MHFA First Nations course, Belcourt passes on that empathy and understanding to help First Aiders learn how to recognize mental health struggles in their communities, perhaps in their own families or circles of friends. “You’re that bridge between where they’re at, and where they need to go,” she said.

Co-facilitators are not there to provide professional care. Rather, their task is to listen and provide support in the moment, much like physical first aid. The next step, said Wabano-McKay, is to “connect the person to appropriate professional help and explore other supports people may have within their community. We let them know that their role as Mental Health First Aiders is to be that go-between, to give somebody that opening to be able to say, ‘I’m not okay, and I need some help.’”

Because every First Nations community has its own history, all of these interactions are carried out while respecting each tradition and culture. As Chum puts it, we’re always finding that “their food is different, their ways of knowing are different, their culture is different. We’re a very diverse people right across this place we call Turtle Island.”

Mental Health First Aid is provided to a person developing a mental health problem, experiencing a mental crisis, or a worsening of their mental health. More than 500,000 Canadians have been trained since 2007 and you can as well. Find a MHFA course online or in person.

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