Saskatchewan

Saskatoon friendship centre's new mental health program aims to heal intergenerational trauma

The Saskatoon Indian Métis Friendship Centre has offered a healing hand up to Indigenous people in need for years. But now, it’s formalizing it with a new mental health program called Sītoskawātowin— a Plains Cree word that means supporting each other.

Program uses art, sharing circles to provide healing to Indigenous people

Sītoskawātowin offers a number of Indigenous-led therapies — including through art, sharing circles and land-based activities. (Submitted by Charlene Cote)

The Saskatoon Indian Métis Friendship Centre has offered a healing hand up to Indigenous people in need for years. But now, it's formalizing it with a new mental health program called Sītoskawātowin — a Plains Cree word that means supporting each other.

The registered social workers and mental health therapists with the program, Charleen Cote and Shauna Watcheson, came up with the name through the guidance of elders.

"In our ways, we are not above others and we are not below — we're all on the same level," Watcheson said. "We wanted to make sure that we're acknowledging that and that we're appreciating the people who we work with because they teach us every day."

Sītoskawātowin — which is mostly targeted toward any status Indigenous person, due to coverage through the federal government's Non-Insured Health Benefits program — offers various Indigenous-led therapies, from sharing circles to land-based activities.

Offering a healing hand up in times of need — that's what the Saskatoon Indian Métis Friendship Centre has been doing for years. But now, it’s formalizing things with a new mental health program called Sītoskawātowin, a Plains Cree word that means supporting each other. 7:07

An accessible connection to culture

Making these Indigenous ways of healing accessible to those who live off-reserve was also top of mind when creating the program, Watcheson said.

"It's just the displacement of a lot of our Indigenous people residing in the city, and there's a specific level of trauma that comes with that," she explained, noting that often translates into homelessness, poverty and addictions. 

"That's what this program is designed to do — to reconnect to our culture," added Robert Doucette, the friendship centre's executive director. "I think it's really powerful because when a person understands where they come from, they have the ability to be empowered."

In many cases, Doucette noted, the people they help are current or former foster children who were separated from their families. 

"They don't know who they are and they're looking for a way to connect," he said. "By having this program, we're actually helping our youth reconnect and understand where they came from. It helps them to move forward."

Robert Doucette, the Saskatoon Indian Métis Friendship Centre’s executive director, along with registered social workers and mental health therapists Shauna Watcheson and Charleen Cote run the Sītoskawātowin mental health program. (Submitted by Charleen Cote)

Addressing intergenerational trauma — from residential schools or the '60s Scoop, for example — is a large part of the work they do, Watcheson added. And being one of the few Indigenous-led mental health programs for Indigenous people allows an added layer of comfort for those who access it.

"I'm not entirely sure if that's something non-Indigenous people will ever really understand or recognize; it's an unspoken kinship value that Indigenous people share," Watcheson explained. "It doesn't matter where you come from or what you've been through, where you're at or where you're going — it just is."

Sītoskawātowin is offering virtual and over-the-phone therapy sessions, along with one-on-one in-person meetings and the occasional sharing circle. Walk-ins are also still welcome. If the therapists meet with clients in person, Doucette said that all COVID-19 protocols — including mask wearing and physical distancing — are enforced. 

"We're not leaving any stone unturned," Doucette said. "It really is time to resolve a lot of [intergenerational trauma] issues that remain and those that are created by systemic racism on a daily basis."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jessie Anton is a Regina-based journalist with CBC Saskatchewan. She’s been sharing stories from across the province on television, radio and online since 2016, initially getting her start in the rural weekly newspaper world. Email her: jessie.anton@cbc.ca.

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