Anishinaabe/Bear Clan Michele Young-Crook knew as a child that she wanted to be successful and financially independent. She wanted a better life for herself than the one she had growing up, and it was a view that intensified after having children of her own.
"I wanted to have more, and especially when you give life to someone—I had my daughter in 2007—that's when I really started to focus on: What can I do to put myself in a better place, to be a better person?"
Today, she's a mother of three children, ages four, 10 and 14, and the chief executive of the National Aboriginal Trust Officers Association (NATOA), a charitable organization that focuses on development and workshop opportunities as well as advocacy for the management and operation of Indigenous trusts. She was a volunteer with the organization for many years, before rising through its ranks.
But her journey hasn't always been easy. She's long suffered from anxiety and panic attacks, was bullied and ostracized in high school and battled thoughts of suicide in her early 20s. She also suffered from severe postpartum anxiety with the birth of two of her children.
"As somebody who has mental health issues, I know that when I was younger, there was nothing out there. You go to high school guidance counselors, you try to reach out to people, but there's still, I feel, a stigma … even if it's not as big as it used to be, it's still kind of there," says Young-Crook.
"There were never any real resources back then. Kids Help Phone wasn't what it is today … I was grateful that I was able to kind of pull myself out, and I surrounded myself with people who lifted me up and helped me see my worth."
These days, Young-Crook is in a much healthier space overall, and the panic attacks have lessened—but not everyone is as lucky. Working with Indigenous community leaders, she knows that suicide rates are escalating.
"Dealing with the loss of family members or friends ... I lost a lot of people to suicide over the years … So being around that, I wanted to find a way that we can make it better," she says.
Creating a support network for Indigenous youth
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, she could see the impact it had on people's morale, but especially among youth. As a member of a committee for Indigenous education, Young-Crook heard from students how defeated they were feeling. Many grapple with substance abuse, physical abuse and psychological abuse but have no outlet to address these issues.
"There's nothing out there for Indigenous youth specifically ... I wanted to do something that would give people coping mechanisms as well," she says, adding that the few resources that were supposed to be available were no longer in service or included outdated information.
Moved to action by a devastating private social media post by an Indigenous leader sharing their grief over having buried more than half a dozen youths in their community during a short period of time, Young-Crook knew her organization could do something to help.
She spent several weeks compiling thousands of emails from every First Nations, Metis and Inuit groups across Canada and reached out to the many Indigenous youths she'd connected with over the years, to spread the word about hosting a summit.
Over the course of three days in the fall of 2020, more than 200 Indigenous youths from across Canada gathered online for a virtual summit that some say saved their mental health amidst the pandemic. Cut off from in-person activities, sports, classes and a sense of kinship with their community during COVID-19, the summit provided these young adults with a rare opportunity to rediscover those connections.
Mental wellness takes centre stage
Fostering opportunities and strengthening financial literacy for Indigenous women and youth play an important role in NATOA's mandate, she says, but those goals become much more challenging without support for mental health and wellness.
"Everything starts with your mind, and if you don't have a good mindset, it's really hard to make decisions," says Young-Crook. Research on intergenerational trauma and people's spending habits, for example, suggests that some people will spend money in order to spark a momentary sense of happiness and euphoria.
"We need to figure out ways to fix that because we want to make sure there's intergenerational wealth," she says.
"We're trying to show that once you heal yourself and rewire your brain and develop a good relationship with money, you'll learn to save more—you'll switch that euphoria from spending to saving, and ... make better choices with your money."
Indigenous trusts protect and manage business activities and settlement funds, such as land claims and treaty land entitlements. Over the years, Indigenous groups across Canada have created a growing number of trusts for long-term investments that also provide immediate help to communities through income derived from those investments.
Building success in communities
The NATOA summit, which covers mental health, financial literacy and entrepreneurship, allows Indigenous youths as young as 16 to meet their peers online—from coast to coast to coast—and hear Elders and other community leaders speak.
Mental wellness issues such as self-care, a question-and-answer session with a mental health counsellor, and talks by representatives from jack.org were especially well-received by attendees, Young-Crook says.
"[Attendees] said … this event saved their mental health," Young-Crook says.
"They felt so lost. They hadn't had any communication with other Indigenous youth from across the country because events that usually take place every year were cancelled. So they had nothing; they had no outlet."
Among the youths who attended the 2020 summit, four started businesses that are still operating. Others felt confident enough to return to school. One attendee, who originally thought she couldn't go into the trades because she was a woman, was so inspired by a female tradesperson she met at the event that she's now going to school to become an electrician. Another attendee is starting a community youth drop-in program.
"We've had so many great outcomes," says Young-Crook. And she hopes to build on that success.
NATOA will be hosting another virtual Indigenous Youth Summit in 2021, sponsored by RBC, and has plans to shift to in-person in 2022, depending on the state of the pandemic. The organization is also aiming to get RBC executives who are Indigenous to present on the topic of financial literacy. In addition, NATOA is applying for funding for a project with the Government of Canada to raise awareness about Indigenous youth and mental health.
Resilience and healing
Young-Crook says mental health was the number-one topic people wanted to hear about at the 2021 summit. "We need to make sure we give them the right tools," she adds. It's perhaps even more important now, following the devastating confirmation of thousands upon thousands of unmarked graves at residential schools across the country.
"I found that when we added mental health as a topic at the summit, it was so well received," says Young-Crook, adding that the presence of Elders during these discussions was especially impactful.
"Elders are knowledge keepers, and we found that when we had them present, the youth were more inclined to share with them … I think it's a trust thing, I really do. I know that for a lot of them, having the Elders present definitely provides a sense of comfort."
One of the Elders who spoke at the 2020 summit shared his experiences with losing family members to suicide, coping with substance abuse issues and having suicidal thoughts. And all the Elders who spoke were residential school survivors, something that also resonated with Young-Crook. Her own grandmother, who raised her, had lost a number of siblings as a result of the schools.
"There were 16 of them who went and I think only eight or nine came back," she says. Stressing the importance of teaching Indigenous youth healthier coping mechanisms, Young-Crook hopes to help break the negative cycle caused by intergenerational trauma, and show how incredible and resilient Indigenous people are.
"Having [the Elders] talk about how they've been able to heal themselves and be there for other people and future generations, really resonated with the youth and made them realize we're all connected, and we're all here."