A panel discussion at the Yukon Mental Wellness Summit in Whitehorse on Nov. 14 highlighted work being done by the Liard Aboriginal Women’s Society, Blood Ties Four Directions, mental wellness and substance use services, and the Mental Health Association of Yukon. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

Yukon’s mental wellness summit focuses on trauma and resilience

About 250 people attended the event

If it hadn’t been free, the third annual Yukon Mental Wellness Summit would have sold out.

On Nov. 13, 250 people (capacity for the summit) were packed into the Longhouse at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre for the opening remarks of the two-day event.

Dallas Smith, project manager with the Yukon government, said the summit was attended by Yukon Government employees, as well as staff from the First Nations and non-governmental organizations, and the general public.

The summit consisted of keynote addresses from Dr. Eduardo Duan, a psychologist who spoke about Indigenous cultures and healing trauma, and Dr. Susan Biali Haas, who spoke about healing and resilience.

Both days also included workshops on topics ranging from trauma-informed practice and gender and sexual orientation inclusion awareness, to on-the-land resilience, and how to become a suicide-alert helper.

On the second day, there was a panel discussion featuring four speakers from local organizations including Julie Laliberte, a facilitator with the Liard Aboriginal Women’s Society (LAWS), Jesse Whelen, a harm reduction and wellness counsellor at Blood Ties Four Directions, Cheri Van Delst, a counselling services supervisor with mental wellness and substance use services, and Francis VanKessel, Headstrong coordinator with the Mental Health Association of Yukon.

Laliberte spoke about Youth for Culture, a partnership project between LAWS and Johnson Elementary School in Watson Lake. She said one component of the project was a regalia sewing exercise for graduates of the school.

The goal was to build connections between youth and elders while preparing something special for graduation, she said.

Not only did the experience cultivate pride in graduation, it instilled a sense of pride in culture.

Laliberte said that was important because a big piece of wellness is knowing who you are, and knowing where you’re going.

“In that first year, a mom came up to me and she was so proud, of course of her daughter graduating, but also because she hadn’t sewn in a long time and her daughter didn’t know that she could sew … I really felt a lot of good feelings when I saw the mom and daughter be able to build on their relationship and for the daughter to recognize in her mom a strength she didn’t know about.”

Smith said the first mental wellness summit in 2016, was held to coincide with the release of a 10-year mental wellness strategy. That strategy identified four priorities in the Yukon including promotion and prevention, service delivery, system performance and access, and innovation and research.

“In the first year we really focused on sort of using the knowledge within Yukon and we had focused on primary service providers working across the territory,” said Smith of the programming in 2016.

He said the second year was a celebration of the successes since the previous year, but noted that action came out of it as well – the summit led to the establishment, in 2018, of four mental wellness and substance abuse services hubs in communities including Watson Lake, Carmacks, Dawson City and Haines Junction.

Smith said this year’s theme of trauma and resilience was the result of feedback received after 2017. Included in this feedback was interest in land-based programming, which has also been suggested by a First Nations partners committee that’s working with HSS.

He said those partners have made it clear that cultural acts and connection to the land are important parts of finding meaning, connection, and self-regulation.

Smith said there are no well-defined examples at the moment, of what this kind of integration could look like, but that, to him, is one of the most exciting things.

“Looking across the country, this is still new and I actually think this is where Yukon has the potential to become a leader,” said Smith.

“It’s exciting that we could be kind of the example for the country.”

Contact Amy Kenny at amy.kenny@yukon-news.com

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