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News ᑎᐹᒋᒧᐧᐃᓐ

Soar Above Stigma campaign targets social stigmas that create serious health problems

BY Will Nicholls Sep 27, 2021

Covid-19 impacts First Nations across Canada in many ways. High infection rates are compounded by higher levels of substance abuse, mental health challenges and other health problems. How do we deal with this?

Soar Above Stigma is a campaign that aims to do just that.

“Stigma is when people hold beliefs and attitudes towards other people that is harmful,” explained First Peoples Wellness Circle Executive Director Dr. Brenda Restoule. “That makes it difficult for a person to perhaps to access resources and services in order to take care of themselves. It blocks them to attend to their well-being.”

Restoule said that First Nations people need to show support, kindness, encouragement and compassion towards each other: “Collectively, we are stronger together than leaving people to cope on their own.”

That is why three Indigenous Health organizations – First Peoples Wellness Circle, Thunderbird Partnership Foundation and the First Nations Health Managers Association – have partnered with NationTalk to create the Soar Above Stigma campaign. 

They hope that by sharing stories, interviews, images and videos of people who have battled mental illness and substance abuse they can lessen the shame that fuels stigma. It’s never easy to share your story and it is a privilege to have the opportunity to listen to another’s story. Soar Above Stigma reminds us that we are not alone. 

Restoule said they also deal with fears related to sexual orientation, gender identity or on-reserve and off-reserve living. “There is also micro-aggression by the non-Indigenous community,” she noted. 

Research shows that when we are isolated, we experience more depression, anxiety, loneliness and physical ailments than when we are surrounded by a caring community. Many individuals avoid seeking treatment or support for mental health or addiction problems due to fear of discrimination. 

Vulnerable individuals experience discrimination and racism not only on a personal level, but also in well-publicized incidents such as the Joyce Echaquan story. The Atikamekw woman posted Facebook videos of medical staff verbally abusing her with racist epithets in a Joliette hospital shortly before she was left to die from a lack of medical attention.

First Nations people have all had to follow self-isolation protocols during the Covid pandemic, creating a larger gap between the shame that silences us and the love and support from the people in their lives. This shame makes us more susceptible to stigma from individuals in our communities. The campaign seeks to address these issues at a grassroots level.

Social distancing measures have forced many of us to live a large portion of our lives virtually. With so much uncertainty, there is more unfiltered fear, anger and misinformation being shared on social media and other platforms. Living with mental illness or addictions during the pandemic particularly affects vulnerable individuals in a variety of ways, including loss of social connection, greater anxiety, fear and isolation – creating a vicious downward spiral.

So, what happens when one in three Indigenous people face challenges with mental wellness?

The most serious consequence is an increase in mortality during the Covid pandemic, including from suicide. This is an agonizing fact. No one deserves to be shamed into dying alone. Soar Above Stigma unites First Nations by recognizing that we need social and community connections to alleviate the challenges we are facing.

The campaign hopes to steer Indigenous communities to consider the ways that finding meaning, belonging, purpose and hope heals trauma. It allows us to listen and be listened to. 

Their website: soarabovestigma.ca

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Will Nicholls is a Cree from Mistissini. He started his career off in radio and is still one of the youngest radio DJ’s in Canadian history, having a regular show on CFS Moosonee at the age of 12. Will was one of the founding members of the Nation, and has been its only Editor-in-Chief.