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Island Indigenous youth suicide prevention initiative rooted in cultural practices

Finding healing with knowledge and sharing
N’alaga Consulting’s Suicide Initiative program takes a non-clinical, non-pathologizing approach to suicide. Photo by Ali Roddam

In the spring of 2021, Tamika Mountain, an 18-year-old ‘Namgis youth, passed away due to suicide.

This tragic passing prompted Avis O’Brien, team lead and director of N’alaga Consulting, to reach out on social media to offer support to anyone in a similar position to Mountain.

“I didn’t know Tamika personally, but her passing propelled me to not want to live in isolation with my own experience of living with the spirit of suicide,” said O’Brien. “So I put it out into the universe that I wanted to do something for our young people who are also navigating the spirit of suicide.”

Within a year, O’Brien had a program fully funded by the Vancouver Foundation and the Comox Valley Transition Society and delivered. N’alaga Consulting’s Suicide Initiative program takes a non-clinical, non-pathologizing approach to suicide in an 11-week initiative at Lake Trail School, on the unceded traditional territory of the K’ómoks First Nation.

O’Brien said the method is contrary to how the mental health system currently addresses suicide.

“Pathologizing is where they locate the problem within the person; ‘Oh you’re suicidal, something must be broken within you.’ We look at suicidality as a normal human response to carrying the burden of 500 years of attempted and ongoing colonial genocide.”

O’Brien said suicide is a normal human response to trauma and for Indigenous people, the trauma stems from the traumas they have experienced such as oppression and the impact of residential schools.

The initiative provides culturally-rooted tools to Indigenous youth and teaches them how to process and work through suicide and self-harm. These tools, O’Brien said, are land-based and culturally-rooted practices.

“So drumming, singing, cold water cleansing, cedar brushing, being on the land, praying, smudging - these are all practices that have been proven to move our nervous system into a regulated place.”

O’Brien brought in the work of Dr. Steven Porges, the author of the Ployvagal theory, which is a collection of constructs that pertain to the role of the vagus nerve in emotional regulation.

“There’s three states our nervous system can be in at any given time,” said O’Brien, regarding the polyvagal theory. The theory explains the nervous system as a triangle where at the top is where a person feels safe and regulated, the middle is where the flight or fight response comes from, and the bottom is where dissociation occurs.

In the 11-week program, Elders were present, which O’Brien explained most of the youth had never had access to before.

“Most of the youth had never met and spent time with (the Elders), and that was one of the things they loved the most. There’s a real magic when you get young people with Elders together and that transmission of knowledge and sharing.”

At the end of the program they held a blanketing ceremony, which she said was incredibly special for the youth.

“That’s a ceremony that we do to protect them and send them on their path in a good way,” she said. “And there was a lot of tears and they were being wrapped in a blanket and told that they were loved and cared about, it was a pretty special thing.”

N’alaga also runs a one-day program, which condensed the 11-week program, and it’s already run in Alert Bay and Port Hardy, and this spring they plan on running it in Haida Gwaii.

There are plans to run another program in Campbell River where the program would actually be a part of the school day.

“They get credits towards their graduation,” O’Brien noted. “They’re learning about neuroscience, trauma theory, land-based healing - they’re learning high academic level curriculum.”

—Jasper Myers for the Comox Valley Record

READ MORE: Study led by B.C. prof finds 8% of school-age children have thought about or attempted suicide

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