Why bring this up?
On January 3rd, 2012, the first day back to school from the winter holidays, I went into the photocopy room at Hope Secondary School and broke down. I finished out the day and left. Shortly thereafter, I was diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety. I started seeing a counselor and entered a work & wellness rehab program. There was evidence to suggest I was ready to throw in the towel on everything.
Looking back, I can see some of the first indicators that something was wrong. I stopped reading books. I stopped attending movies. I would drive to the theatre, sit in the parking lot until the movie started and then go home. I rented movies and returned them late, unwatched. I told myself it was because I was so busy being a teacher and activist, traveling to teach teachers about Aboriginal youth, attending Aboriginal education committee meetings, blogging and engaging on social media. I would catch up eventually.
As an FN support worker, and later a special education teacher and FN case manager, I worked often with at-risk youth. I've put together a lot of meetings to set up supports. I was able to ask Are you okay? I wasn't able to recognize that something was wrong in me.
Since January, life has been terrifying. I withdrew from everything to focus on getting better. It has been less than great. I know I am getting better but I have a long way to go. Those that follow my Twitter, or Facebook, know I have been exercising (and that I find it to be a miserable experience). I have a long way to go. I have a stack of books I want to read but I can't yet. I try and fail repeatedly. I have gone to the movies more often again, which is wonderful. I love reading. I love movies. Over the last month, I have become very ambitious as far as my side project film stuff is concerned (though not much has been accomplished yet) and I have done a lot of blogging recently, as you are no doubt aware. I don't sleep well.
Why, um, are you telling me all this?
I share this with you because, being a teacher of Aboriginal ancestry, one of the very few (too few), I find that being a teacher carries a lot of responsibility that I have wondered if others have to shoulder. I am a role model. I shared with you once the story of the time my uncle told me how proud he was to see me pursuing my Masters degree because "no one has ever tried to do what you are doing before."
It is very daunting to think about that responsibility. Sometimes I wish there was so many of us, teachers of Aboriginal ancestry, or even Aboriginal people with Masters degrees, that I could fail and not feel like I was letting down Aboriginal people. I have preached to students that we resist assimilation and colonization, not by retreating into our reserves, closing ourselves off; we resist by succeeding. We resist by excelling in the western world without giving up who we are. We resist by surviving and thriving in both worlds.
I have lamented that teachers of Aboriginal ancestry have to give up a part of ourselves to be teachers in the public education system. I don't resent that because our students deserve a better life than we had. It's why we do what we do. We teach, we share, we take the hits so our kids don't have to. We are the role models that our kids need, until they can take over and be so overwhelmingly great wthat we can fade into the background.
Getting to the point... anytime soon?
Depression hurts. Depression can kill. It sneaks up on you and can blindside you in a photocopy room. Only in hindsight might you see the hints and clues.
- First Nations youth commit suicide about five to six times more often than non-Aboriginal youth.
- The suicide rate for First Nations males is 126 per 100,000 compared to 24 per 100,000 for non-Aboriginal males.
- For First Nations females, the suicide rate is 35 per 100,000 compared to only 5 per 100,000 for non-Aboriginal females. (Canadian Institute of Child Health, 2000)
- Suicide rates for Inuit youth are among the highest in the world, at 11 times the national average
I spend a lot of time trying to not be another statistic. I'm terrified of being just another Indian, but I keep falling into the traps. I am a statistic, though I didn't fall so far as to actually attempt suicide.
Our students are our children. They struggle like we do and feel the same loss and legacy we struggle with. I am sharing my personal story for the same reason I share so much here and with my students. As young people facing a world that often feels like it doesn't like Aboriginal people, our students need to see and know people, of Aboriginal ancestry, who have faced what they face, struggled with the same challenges they experience.
And they need to know they can survive it.
Value your students. Make sure they know they are valued. I struggled for a long time trying to understand how someone could feel so hopeless that they saw no other choice but ending their lives. I don't believe I reached the point where that was my only option, though I will admit it crossed the mind. It pushes in, very much uninvited, whether you want it there or not. Depression doesn't just hurt, it tries to hurt you, actively campaigns against you.
As our students need to see Aboriginal teachers teaching and Aboriginal people being doctors and lawyers and police officers, they also need to see Aboriginal people surviving. I am a long way from thriving but I think I will definitely survive this.
So, as Thomas King would say:
Take this story, it's yours. Do with it what you will, forget it. Use it as a starting point to have a conversation about mental health and suicide. Use it as a cautionary tale. Please don't use it against me, I know the risks of sharing this type of story. Just don't say that you would have viewed the world around you differently had you only known this story. You know it now.