Surrey Memorial Hospital’s Denise Wynne was struggling to find a way to connect with a youth in crisis.
The Adolescent Psychiatry Unit social worker was sitting on a couch trying to get through to a teenage girl admitted for depression after a suicide attempt. Her patient’s life had been hard: she had endured trauma in childhood and was placed in foster care, had dropped out of school, and was frequently suicidal. As she recovered from her overdose, the girl was friendly to employees and patients on the 10-bed acute care unit, but she was clearly struggling and resisting treatment. “She would talk to you,” Denise recalled, “but not on a deeper level.”
Then Denise remembered the Aboriginal youth comfort kits. She reached for one of the warm fleece blankets designed with First Nations emblems that the hospital’s Child and Youth Services had supplied to the unit a few months before. Denise recalled that her patient, a young Aboriginal woman, had recently requested a smudging ceremony, which the unit had performed. Maybe, she thought, offering her the comfort kit would be another way for her patient to heal.
The girl broke out in a smile as she unfurled the soft red blanket and wrapped it around her shoulders. It came with a medicine bag holding traditional healing herbs, and a blessing, which Denise read out: “Yalh yexw Kw’as Hoy. This medicine pouch has been given to you with our blessings. You can wear it when you need extra supports in your life or keep it close to you as a daily reminder to be thankful for the gifts it has given you. The medicine pouch contains: Tobacco to remind you to offer thanks for all that you have, and want, in life. Cedar to cleanse and protect you. Sage to remove negative energy and to help you let go of worries. Sweetgrass to bring in the good spirits of love, kindness and honesty.”
“It was a beautiful moment,” Denise recalled. “It was so empowering for her. It touched her and it touched me too, and it really helped build our relationship.” Following the prayer, Denise explained, they were able to talk on a deeper level about self-care strategies and the idea that the young woman’s culture could be her safety after discharge.
“To me, it represented that it doesn’t matter who I am or what my culture is,” the social worker said of the healing ceremony, “but as a health care worker, I am here for you. My place right now is to open myself up to you to offer a space for you to be safe and to share.”
The Aboriginal comfort kit initiative was launched in 2015 by the Aboriginal Health program, led by the Aboriginal youth suicide prevention and mental health initiatives coordinator. Social workers had discussed concerns about youth showing up in acute care suffering from suicidal thoughts, self-harm and distress over traumatic events in their lives. The kits were assembled with a soft blanket, a journal, a medicine bag/prayer tie and a magnet with support numbers, and provided to hospitals where social workers had reported Aboriginal youth arriving in distress, including Surrey Memorial, Royal Columbian, Burnaby and Chilliwack General Hospitals.
“Aboriginal people have told us that they don’t feel they fit in with the current medical system which doesn’t respect their traditions and values,” explained Terry Brock, Fraser Health’s Regional Practice Leader for Social Work. The initiative, Terry said, is part of a commitment to offer more culturally safe care for First Nations patients and clients. “This is a way for us to try and address a service or cultural gap. Aboriginal youth often talk about feeling disconnected from their culture, so getting reconnected can help them cope with some of the helplessness they may feel.”
After their meeting, Denise sensed her own patient felt a greater sense of safety. She brought the blanket to her room with her, where she stayed quietly for a while, then came back to thank Denise for the gift. She wore the blanket around her shoulders to breakfast the next day, and again when she left the program, having agreed to continue her treatment in outpatient care.
“Aboriginal youth have often been through a lot of intergenerational trauma and they’re vulnerable,” Denise said. To her, the simple act of sharing the comfort kit – and a moment of cultural healing – “sends a message to Aboriginal youth that you are valuable and we respect your values and beliefs.”
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