“How have you been taking care of yourselves?” Lisa Evanoff asks a group of students huddled around a Zoom call in the mostly Indigenous community of Inuvik, Northwest Territories. It’s a simple question, but one that not everybody is equipped to answer.
It should come as no surprise that COVID-19 has increased global stress levels. There are fears of becoming sick, losing someone you care about, losing your job, not being able to live the life you’re used to living. These challenges are greater for people who already struggled to cope before the pandemic. However, there are basic skills you can learn to deal with this stress. Evanoff teaches them in the Psychological First Aid training course, a resource available to communities through the Red Cross Help Desk for Indigenous Leadership.
“Psychological First Aid is about providing comfort and calm to someone who may be experiencing crisis, loss, or any type of trauma in their life,” Evanoff, who works on the training and resource development at the Red Cross said. “People are experiencing a lot of stress right now. So, having an education session that can be offered virtually to give people information about self-care, about how to handle stress in their lives I think is just a really effective workshop.”
The students in Inuvik agreed. They live in a small town, remote even by Northern standards, where past traumas mix readily with present difficulties. It’s not uncommon to have lost a loved one to suicide.
“You’ve got a lot of issues with low self-esteem and depression,” Paden Gordon-Ruben, one of the students, said. “Programs like these are useful for a lot of people that deal with a lot and don’t know where to look or how to answer the problems they have.”
The training isn’t new. The Red Cross has been visiting communities and building the relationships necessary to have these tough conversations. But because of pandemic restrictions the sessions for the students in Inuvik were the first time this course had been taught remotely. Deserine Grimes, Program Academic Advisor for the Sunchild educational program that the students are enrolled in, was initially concerned about how that would affect her students.
“At first, we weren’t sure whether everyone would be okay,” Grimes said. “Although some of the students might have experienced trauma or know people who have been through trauma or have had stresses, the training was done in such a way that even though it brought up memories for some people, at the end of it they didn’t need to go seek any additional help.”
Evanoff and her co-facilitator Dana Mackie are part of a team who have delivered almost a dozen training sessions to Indigenous communities across the country, with more on the horizon. They know that if these difficult, but necessary conversations are to happen they need to be able to build trust. This starts before the sessions even begin by identifying community resources and specialized services, so that the participants have somewhere to go if they need further help.
“We had two counsellors in the college that were made available [through the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation] when we started our virtual session and then we did a brainstorm with the students around what they needed in order to feel safe during our four days together,” Evanoff said.
Often, it’s little things like being able to turn off the camera or taking some time to just listen. This really helped the typically very shy Bonnie Jacobson feel comfortable enough to open up.
“They listened to what we had to say. They made us feel comfortable just being ourselves,” Jacobson said. “I liked it. It gave me some new information that I didn’t know, ways to cope with what’s going on and with everyday life.”
That’s what the program is all about, helping people identify and build the skills they already have to take care of themselves and others.
“The way that we facilitate the content and the actual content itself is not overwhelming,” Mackie, Northern Training Coordinator at the Red Cross said. “It’s something that people can grasp easily and are able to relate to. It’s things that we all know to do, but really putting it into steps: Look, Listen, Link, Live. It’s like a word association reminder of how you can support someone. It can be really effective.”
So, how have they been taking care of themselves? Paden Gordon-Ruben is learning the piano, figuring out how to layer different sounds to create unique musical effects. Bonnie Jacobson has been through a lot recently but is making time for herself. She’s graduating in June and already working on her college applications with the goal of opening her own business in the community. When Petra Kowikchuk is feeling overwhelmed as a young mother, she tries to focus on three happy thoughts and that helps turn her day around. If that doesn’t work a long relaxing bath usually does the trick. She also has reminders to use the techniques on her school bag in case she needs them for herself or others.
“The other day my friend came in and she wasn’t having a good day,” Kowikchuk said. “It seemed like she was mad at me, but I noticed that it wasn’t pointed at me. It was just how she was feeling. I talked to her and told her that she’s not the only one that has hard days. It gets better.”
While Kowikchuk’s experience highlights the importance of these lessons in self-care, that’s not the only takeaway from this training. It also helps to identify when others are struggling and provides advice on what to do. It turns individual growth into community healing.
“I focus on wellbeing a little more and I’m a little more thoughtful,” Gordon-Ruben said. “I’m thinking about more ideas on connecting with people, making sure my family is safe and my friends are okay. I’m just being more thoughtful about everybody’s health.”