Indigenous woman to develop suicide prevention workshops for youth

Nalaga (Avis O’Brien) is working on a series of culturally-based workshops for Indigenous youth where they can develop self regulation tools rooted in ancestral knowledge and yoga-based practices
Photo: Nalaga (Avis O’Brien) wants to help others who experience thoughts of suicide through sharing her own personal experience with what she calls living with the ‘spirit of suicide’. Photo by Zack Embree

After the tragic death of a young person in her community, Nalaga (Avis O’Brien) says she felt determined to help contribute to support services for Indigenous youth dealing with what she calls “the spirit of suicide.”

“We recently had a youth pass away…I didn’t know her personally, but it hit me really hard, and that’s where this vision has been born out of,” Nalaga tells IndigiNews. “The leading cause of death for Indigenous youth and Indigenous people under the age of 44, is suicide.”

Nalaga, who’s of the Haida and Ligwildawx nations on her mother’s side, is working on a series of workshops for Indigenous youth to help develop self regulation tools rooted in ancestral knowledge, she says.

Currently, Nalaga is in the process of developing the workshops, pulling from her own lived experiences, those of her friends and family, and weaving in the expertise of trained professionals. 

She will draw on the neuro decolonization work of Dr. Michael Yellowbird for the curriculum, as well as the work of Mohawk and Algonquin therapist, Riel Dupuis-Ross, moving away from pathologizing Indigenous people for their mental health struggles, and instead centering Indigenous knowledge, she explains.

“These workshops will really focus on destigmatizing suicidality, highlighting the root causes of suicidality with colonialism, and delivering Indigenous land-based healing modalities, tied in with breath and embodiment practices,” she says.

Nalaga describes “the spirit of suicide” as an entity that comes and goes from a person’s life. This spirit has become an epidemic in Indigenous communities, stemming from over 500 years (geographically varying), of genocide, colonization and trauma, root issues that Nalaga says are not spoken about enough.

There is stigma around talking about suicide because it makes people very uncomfortable, she explains. 

“I’ve never seen a training specifically for people who live with the spirit of suicide. I want to use my experience to break down some of those stigmas,” she says.

“I want to share that there are ways to make peace with that spirit, so that it doesn’t take over.”

Nalaga’s work aims to help Indigenous people connect in a positive way to their identities and cultures, through song, dance, harvesting medicines, ceremonies, such as cedar brushing, and more. Her work with non-Indigenous communities aims to dismantle racism, build solidarity and allyship, and break down negative stereotypes, she explains.

Nalaga has been doing this work for just under a decade. She started by selling traditional cedar jewelry, and now wants to extend her services for suicide prevention support.

Overall, she says she is helping Indigenous peoples to resist the impacts of ongoing colonial violence through connecting to culture and land as a form of empowerment, resistance and wellness. 

Nalaga speaks to the root of issues, such as abuse, which have caused great pain in Indigenous communities, and stem directly from colonization and the residential school system.

“When people live with complex trauma that starts in early childhood… when your brain is developing…there’s a lot of adverse impacts…really sets us up for a lifetime of trauma, unless intervened,” she says.

“Just name it. Name these thoughts. Name this spirit.” O’Brien believes that by naming suicide for what it is takes away its power. Photo by Farah Nosh

Nalaga says many Indigenous youth don’t have the resources they need to deal with the emotional and mental anguish that this historical, intergenerational trauma leaves behind. 

According to Statistics Canada, suicide rates among Indigenous people remain significantly higher than among non-Indigenous people.

Nalaga also explains that when Indigenous youth are having suicidal thoughts, they may be scared to tell someone how they feel for fear of being judged, shamed or misunderstood. This was true in her own life.

“The spirit of suicide is something that has come and gone from my life since I was 10 years-old,” she says. “I have a relationship with that spirit now. It still comes into my life from time to time, and I have the tools and resources to move out of those thoughts and feelings. I also understand that the root of this is colonialism.”

A teaching that has stuck with Nalaga over the past decade was shared with her by a Cree Elder who told her that whatever it is that she is trying to run away from, whatever pain she is trying to escape, there is a lesson underneath it. 

“Our ancestors are very wise. They knew how to take care of themselves. They knew how to maintain a state of harmony and balance within their bodies, minds and spirits,” she says. 

Nalaga says the workshops she is planning will focus on Indigenous land-based forms of healing, and there will be Elders on board to help facilitate through her consulting company, Nalaga Designs where she delivers cultural empowerment, decolonization and reconciliation programs to communities. 

Nalaga also wants to offer other healing traditions, like breathwork and yoga, and invite professionals, such as Indigenous clinical therapists, to help develop the curriculum.

“I’m hoping to help develop self-regulation tools, so when people are in those moments of dysregulation, when things aren’t feeling safe, not feeling okay in their bodies, they can develop the tools through using their breath, and bodies, to calm their nervous systems, and bring them back to a regulated state,” Nalaga says. “When we’re in a regulated state, we have access to our prefrontal cortex, which is the rational thinking part of our brain.”

Right now, Nalaga is working with Yoga Outreach, a Vancouver based non profit that provides trauma-informed yoga to survivors, to secure funding for this work. She is also working on the outreach aspect, and hopes to speak with youth workers and communities.

“Me staying alive is an act of resistance to the ongoing impacts of colonialism,” she says. 

There are many youth suicide help lines and online resources if you or someone you know needs help:

Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 833-456-4566

BC Crisis Centre: 1-800-SUICIDE (784-2433)

Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868

Youth in BC Mental Health Support Line: 310-6789

Online Crisis Centre Chat

The Foundry Virtual Support