The month we learned that mental health is everybody’s responsibility

Hill Times April 6 2020

In March of 2020, the world went into lockdown. We stopped going out to see friends, many stopped going to places of work and lost the hallway conversations with co-workers, and we started to look at neighbours with no small sense of fear.

Anxiety started to grow. Some started to feel that “fight or flight” response when the physical body declares there is a threat, except there is nothing to see to fight and nowhere to flee. That “fight or flight” physical response is a natural and necessary response when there is a real threat, and it gives us the strength and clarity and urgency to survive through a life-threatening event. But that same “fight or flight” response starts to have some negative impacts when it continues to run hot in our bodies without a natural conclusion. And so many are realizing that mental health is actually a daily practice, and practice is work.

First Nations sometimes call it something else; we sometimes call it balance. Mental health is a narrow term, too narrow to capture the lived experience of it. Mental health is connected to our network of people, to our physical health, to the land, to our roles in community.

First Nations have been through pandemics before, and we’ve lost thousands and thousands of our ancestors to smallpox, flu, and tuberculosis. The benefit of story-telling cultures is that we can share the stories of living through the Spanish flu, through smallpox in the 1800s. However, these are not stories that are thrown around lightly, as we all did not survive through these dark times. The lesson is simply that we are still here—we are still standing.

Elder Sam Achneepineskum Sr. is from Martin Falls First Nation located on the Albany River, smack dab in the middle of northern Ontario. Elder Sam was born and raised in the northern Ontario wilderness, and grew up on the land. He shared with me that when you live a life governed by what nature provides, one values different things than a life lived in materialism and capitalism. He shared about a life and values and knowledge gained by learning to adapt to the seasons and weather, 'a course for your survival, and one learns to follow natural law,' writes Rose LeMay. Photograph courtesy of Facebook

Elder Sam Achneepineskum Sr. is from Martin Falls First Nation located on the Albany River, smack dab in the middle of northern Ontario. Elder Sam now lives in Thunder Bay and supports the balance of those who ask for his support, based in the knowledges passed down to him from time immemorial.

Elder Sam has been sharing some jokes recently on social media. Some may wonder if humour is an appropriate response in the midst of this chaos, and Elder Sam simply continues to share gentle jokes; perhaps balance includes humour.

Elder Sam was born and raised in the northern Ontario wilderness, and grew up on the land. He shared with me that when you live a life governed by what nature provides, one values different things than a life lived in materialism and capitalism. He shared about a life and values and knowledge gained by learning to adapt to the seasons and weather, “a course for your survival, and one learns to follow natural law.”

Natural law is a phrase that encompasses a wealth of knowledge and a way of being in this world, and includes the sense that we have what we need in the land and in our people around us, and in us. Perhaps balance includes a knowledge of what is truly essential, and that certainly includes land.

Not land as in owning land, but land as in the entity which teaches us. In 2020, the lesson the land is telling is so stark that we can’t help but to listen: it’s all connected. Perhaps balance includes an understanding that we are all connected.

We have been reduced to a small life in our homes, restricted from so many of the accustomed distractions. We are struggling with how to cope, and perhaps some anxiety. Elder Sam and Elders across this land are calm and balanced, and are choosing to share their knowledge to help us all. After all that they have gone through in terms of colonization and residential schools and more, Elders continue. Perhaps balance includes stories.