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Mental Health Week 2019: Q & A with Courtney Defriend

​​Regional Manager, Mental Health and Wellness for Vancouver Island Region


Q: How would you describe mental health and wellness for First Nations people?

A: Mental wellness for First Nations people is a wholistic and relational topic. Wellness of a person reflects wellness of our family, community, and nation. Everything is connected. This is true for our internal systems (cognitive, spiritual, respiratory, muscular, etc.) as well as our life span and the experiences we have. Wellness is the relationship we have with everything around us.

Q: What does it mean to feel well? I can only speak from a personal perspective.

A: I have been taught to be well by being around family, being responsible for myself, and being connected to my traditional tools such as the river, cedar trees, and the ocean. Being well also means being responsible for my thoughts and maintaining a good state of mental wellness. I do this through self-check in's, prayer, and support from loved ones to ensure I am kind to myself and others. This can be done through ensuring I have work/life balance, considering all parts of my mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical wellness, and having the courage to maintain boundaries. To be well means to feel grounded and connected.

Q: What do individuals and communities need in order to feel well?

A: Author and professor Dr. Martin Brokenleg highlighted the need to feel belonging in order to give generosity, which can lead to independence and mastery. Our communities require opportunities to build social and economic capacity and to do so we need healthy people who feel generous, independent, and masterful. For me, the belonging piece is sacred as it is starts with culture. Many people are not connected to culture so it is a journey to understand how we are all connected and how we belong. Culture can be many things - language, food, but also fun. Our people connect through sport, art, and laughter, which are all ways of being well. Lateral kindness is at the root of this and in order to be kind to others, we need to be kind to ourselves, which requires self-love and self-worth.

Q: How is mental health and wellness connected to physical, emotional and spiritual health?

A: It is all the same. Consider an eco-system: the salmon runs up the river, the bear catches the salmon to nourish himself and leaves the remains to the trees, which require the nutrients in order to offer protection, medicine, shelter, tools, and contribute to the forest, which contribute to the people, who eat the salmon, and respect and protect the cycle. Which one is most important? They are all equal. There is no hierarchy for wellness. We have to think of the mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical as important because they impact one another and feed into one another.

Q: What are some of the root causes of poor mental health and wellness for First Nations?

A: Disconnection from culture and cultural drift. It is not our culture to be segregated. We share our wealth which comes in all forms: food, medicine, teachings, land, song, dance, language, and laughter. Contact has taught us to look at things in quantum, or silos. Residential schools have taught behaviours like abuse, violence, and greed. The Indian Act has prescribed who is entitled to resources and makes some more important than others. The disconnect from our traditional teachings and ways of being has created dis-ease. This comes from intergenerational trauma.

Q: What are some ways that individuals can take care of their mental wellness and nurture spirit?

A: The power of intention is strong. Practicing diligence in kindness to ourselves and others goes a long way. Asking for help is also big. We have been taught to be ashamed when we are struggling. Many of our programs in community lack engagement. Sometimes the services are there and the people don't come. It is important to break the stigma around getting help. It starts with every person shifting their thoughts and intentions. The ripple effect is big.

Q: Do you have any advice for someone who might be struggling with their mental health?

A: There is a saying "name it to tame it". I can only speak for myself but struggles with mental health are so common and yet so stigmatized. When we can identify the feeling of depression or anxiety, it creates an awareness around it and allows us to start looking at how we can address it, whether it be personal or professional. Ask for help when needed. Often we worry so much about others and not ourselves. Imagine the people that look up to you - if you can't do it for yourself right now, consider how you might inspire others to receive help by you asking. Mental wellness is a journey. It isn't something we do and it's done, it is like eating or going to the bathroom, we have to have good mental hygiene. The best advice I have given myself is to be okay with taking the time I need. I find myself feeling guilty when I need to take a time out and my guilty feelings don't serve anyone. I can only help others as much as I can help myself; others will only be as well as I am. We need to create a culture around self-kindness – which can be a hard shift to make!

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