Asked to describe some of the complex challenges facing Indigenous youth in Canada today, Deanna Dunham — Kids Help Phone’s Manager of Indigenous Initiatives — hesitates. “It’s a lot,” she says after a moment. And then she makes a list.
High suicide rates. High incarceration rates. Indigenous youth are more likely to live in foster care: in Manitoba alone, they represent 90 percent of kids in care. Poverty is a major issue. The ongoing effects of colonization — trauma and displacement passed down through the generations — take a profound toll.
In short, First Nations, Inuit and Métis youth are in crisis. Yet despite their growing and urgent need for mental health support, very few options are available to them. Counselling services in remote communities are intermittent or non-existent, waiting lists are long and many Indigenous youth simply don’t know how or where to reach out.
“The lack of access to mental healthcare services being experienced by Indigenous youth can severely impact every other part of their lives,” says Deanna. “Mental health is closely linked to food security, economic opportunities and access to education.”
These are the challenges now being addressed by Kids Help Phone with the launch of our historic action plan for supporting Indigenous youth. Guided and developed by our Indigenous Advisory Council, a committee of Indigenous leaders and experts, the action plan — called Finding Hope — details key goals and activities designed to help us reach young people at-risk in the coming months and years. Among the goals are a commitment to increase both the number of sessions with Indigenous youth and Indigenous representation among staff and volunteers.
Demand for our services has already increased dramatically among Indigenous youth since we began targeted outreach in 2019. Compared to 2018, the number of phone, text and chat sessions with Indigenous youth increased by 143 per cent.
“What we want Indigenous youth to know — and what we’re seeing from their response to our outreach efforts so far — is that Kids Help Phone is available 24/7,” says Kathy Hay, Kids Help Phone’s President and CEO.
We’re here while they’re waiting for support and in between sessions. We provide an accessible option for reaching out when they have nowhere else to turn.
The action plan also calls for an emphasis on building connections with Indigenous communities and initiatives across the country to help maximize awareness of and access to our services for First Nations, Inuit and Métis youth. We achieved a major milestone toward this goal in late 2019 with the creation of the Indigenous Initiatives Network, a central hub bringing together Indigenous-focused community groups, advocates, leaders and experts. The network helps us reach even deeper into the communities most in need of support as well as promote Indigenous programming and volunteer opportunities.
Deanna points to the Pinehouse Photography Club as a moving example of the groups Kids Help Phone is coming into contact with through the Indigenous Initiatives Network. Located in Pinehouse, Saskatchewan, the photography club engages young Cree and Métis community members with the art form and its healing power.
One member of the club, Skylar, told us that the Pinehouse Photography Club has become an important part of his life. “I came from a background where alcohol and drugs were a big factor in my life,” he said. “Thoughts of suicide crossed my mind. This club is a big part of who I am today and has made my life easier and that much more enjoyable.”
Kids Help Phone is now well-known within the small village in northern Saskatchewan and the organization regularly uses images purchased from the young photographers in its materials, giving a platform to their powerful voices and perspectives.
Looking ahead to what’s next, the Indigenous Advisory Council is continuing to focus on education, outreach and capacity building.
Together with external partners, cultural competency training is being rolled out to all levels of staff, as well as our teams of professional counsellors and volunteer Crisis Responders, to ensure they are fully equipped to address the complex needs of Indigenous youth as they reach out in ever-greater numbers.
Despite the many challenges that lie ahead in the pursuit of this ambitious action plan, Jules Koostachin, Co-Chair of the Indigenous Advisory Council, is buoyed by the change she’s already witnessed. And she’s optimistic that major transformation for the landscape of Indigenous youth mental health is on the horizon.
“My hope is that Kids Help Phone’s reach and resources will one day be known to all Indigenous youth in Canada, and that they’ll know they always have someone to speak to in moments of need or crisis,” she says.