Today is National Aboriginal Day and in honour of that we wanted to highlight a role model who could speak on the stigma surrounding mental health in the First Nations community.
Melinda Henderson is a dedicated student, passionate musician and a Miss Universe Canada hopeful. Melinda struggles with anxiety and depression and is determined to end the stigma, especially within the Aboriginal community.
WYL: To start off- tell us a bit about yourself
MH: My name is Melinda Henderson, I am 23 years old, I am Oji-Cree and I am a Lakehead University Journalism/English student completing my studies this summer. I am from the Caribou clan and I am from both Sagkeeng First Nation, Manitoba (father’s side) and North Spirit Lake First Nation, Ontario (mother’s side). My passion is singing and anything to do with music or the arts. I also play guitar and have dance and acting experience. I’ve been singing since I was able to make sounds and I am working towards this dream full-time once I obtain my university degree.
WYL: What is your connection to mental illness?
MH: I am a strong advocate for mental health. It is not talked about enough and there are too many people suffering in silence. I am open about my struggles and obstacles with it because I am not embarrassed or ashamed of it and that’s often the case with some people. I want people to see someone who is going through what they might be going through and understand how common it is and that overcoming it is possible. I might have suffered but the ultimate message I try to send is that there is hope and that you can still live your life and chase your dreams. This is something that took me a while to realize but the journey has made me wise and a survivor.
WYL: How is the stigma surrounding mental health unique to the First Nations community?
MH: There isn’t a lot of mental health support or access on reserves for help and I really want to change that. We put so much time, money, and attention into drug & alcohol addictions and rehab centers but nobody wants to speak up about mental illness, the thing that is most commonly the initial reason for the addictions. It makes me upset and we need to help our children & youth while they are young so they won’t turn to negative things in the future and/or suffer. We need to combat the dependencies and addictions and act right away. As aboriginal people, mental illness and intergenerational trauma is in our DNA and we are at a much higher risk for it. So why aren’t we talking? Why aren’t we acting upon this like we do for other conditions and diseases? I’m going to keep advocating for this because nobody should suffer or feel alone.
WYL: How do you take care of yourself and your mental health?
MH: Taking care of myself and my mental health took me years to learn to do. I never understood the importance of healthy habits such as eating, sleeping, and positive self-talk as well as overall balance. My lifestyle prior contributed to my illness so I learnt and grew a lot in order to make the health changes I have. I am happier now and I realized how common mental illness was and that it is manageable. I wish I knew that before but now I try to be the voice to send that message. I don’t drink often, I don’t smoke, never done drugs, I make sure I get enough sleep, I eat better and I also go to the gym 3-5 times a week. I like to go on walks and sometimes dance alone in my room with my music blasted (it’s awesome!). Learning and trying new things has also helped me become happier, it’s exciting discovering new interests and talents. I do have my days where I feel like I have anxiety a bit but I know that it passes and I have developed coping skills such as breathing and positive self-talk or even talking about something if it bothers me. I’ve been able to accomplish things while being mentally disabled and I think that deserves to be celebrated because my days aren’t the way they used to be. Sometimes in everyday settings I am fighting anxiety but smiling to whoever I’m with and the person will never know. I know I still have work to do but that’s something I’ve accepted and something I work towards. I’m interested in psychology and things that relax the mind and I am proud that I fought. I’ve learnt so much about myself and my illness through education, experiences, and time. I eventually want to write a book about it.
WYL: If you had 30 seconds to share a message with the entire world, what would it be?
MH: Take care of yourself and love yourself. I never understood that until I really needed to do it. If you’re overworking, take a break. If you accomplish something, celebrate it. Write a list of why you are amazing or what you have to be grateful for. Loving yourself is something that is very important for mental health. Sometimes things happen in our lives that make us feel like we’re not worthy, capable or loveable. We’re not those experiences, we’re resilient. Everyone is worthy and don’t let anyone try to tell you or make you feel otherwise. Love yourself enough to know what you deserve.