Warning: This story contains details that can be upsetting to readers
Métis filmmaker Julianna Maggrah spoke at a virtual conference on mental health and suicide prevention hosted by the Roots for Hope and Canadian Mental Health Association in La Ronge.
Julianna is a mental health advocate and public speaker, journalist, filmmaker and podcaster based in Prince Albert. Her film ‘Broken’ explores her own struggle coping with depression, anxiety and abuse and looks for solutions to the stigma around mental health.
Julianna had dealt with sexual abuse as a child and in 2016 physical symptoms kept her mostly isolated in a room in her home between 2011 and 2016. She would push away recollections of what happened —until being alone with her thoughts brought those memories back.
“The memory just kept popping up. It was persistent and it felt like my brain was kind of forcing me to think about it. Because I was isolated there was nothing to distract myself and push it away,” Julianna said.
“Then I realized that I shouldn’t feel ashamed — because as a kid I shouldn’t have to be ashamed of something that happened to me. Once I made that realization I just felt like I had to tell somebody — because I hadn’t said it out loud in all those years.”
From there Julianna met with a counsellor and for the first time shared that painful secret she had kept to herself for 20 years.
“I walked into the counsellor’s office — then when I sat down I blurted it out and cried. The counsellor there set me up with a therapist, and we talked about it and I kind of got comfortable with the idea that it wasn’t my fault. It’s not something that I should feel ashamed about or try to hide from the world,” Julianna said.
“I didn’t have a healthy relationship with sex back then. Because there was always this nagging feeling at the back of my head. I was like, ‘This is wrong.’ Because I felt like what had happened to me was wrong. But then — going through therapy and doing all that work — after that I finally had a good, healthy relationship. That was life changing.”
Julianna said that in order to decrease the stigma around discussing mental health issues and trauma, people need to be made aware that depression, anxiety and even suicidal ideations are normal.
“I think the stigma against (talking about) that is a big reason why a lot of people keep their problems to themselves — thinking that they’re out of the norm,” Julianna said.
“I’m hoping that if they see people talking openly about it they’ll see that it’s okay to talk about it and that it is the norm.”
Julianna pointed to colonialism as a root cause of the intergenerational abuse and trauma she endured — a cycle that began through residential schools and the introduction of alcohol as a coping mechanism.
“My mom would talk about her childhood and how she and her sisters were always beaten up… they were never held. My grandma never said the words ‘I love you’ to them. My grandmother wrote a letter to them, apologizing and telling them about her childhood, where it was the same thing. She was beaten a lot. Never comforted,” Julianna said.
“It just sounds very similar to what people in residential schools endured. That’s how cycles are created, and that’s how people get into substance abuse.”
Julianna said getting back in touch with her culture has helped bring a new sense of purpose to her life and to be more open about her healing journey.
“It’s totally normal to feel sadness, to feel depression, to feel anxiety — they’re all normal emotions, a part of the human experience,” Julianna said.
“When you learn to identify emotions you can get to the roots of what you’re feeling and why. The stigma of mental health is like the colonized mind. We need to decolonize our minds by being open. We used to be very open people, very spiritual people.”
She said emotional openness has allowed her to heal in a way that’s impossible otherwise.
“It’s important to let yourself feel your emotions. When you suppress them, they don’t go away, they just stay there. And eventually they will come out,” Julianna said.
“That could be like angry outbursts or just sudden bursts of crying. There’s no way to make your emotions go away unless you face them.”
Another piece of the puzzle for Julianna has been understanding the link between the mind and the body — how diet impacts mental health and wellness.
“Sometimes nutritional deficiencies can cause things like depression. It started to look more into how food can affect our mental health,” Julianna said.
“Just by paying attention to what I eat, and also correcting any nutritional deficiencies, my brain feels way clearer. I don’t get as emotional as I used to and if I do get depressed or anxious or stressed it doesn’t last as long — and it just doesn’t hit as hard.”
Julianna said recent COVID-19 lockdowns at first reminded her of the time when she felt like she was trapped — but she’s learned to cope with isolation through skills that she’s developed along the way.
“My therapist taught me about identifying emotions and I’ve been doing that a lot. I have anxiety, and I used to just run away from things that I was afraid of. But I was told that facing the things that make you afraid helps you get through it,” Julianna said.
“I wanted to address why being alone in a room scared me so much. So, I took that time when we were in lockdown to just be comfortable with myself… I’m now living alone with just my dog and I’m fine. I don’t feel lonely. I don’t feel trapped and I’m content with it.”
Julianna said reaching out for support for mental health and trauma when you need it is like going to see a doctor when you’re physically sick — and can be approached in the same way.
“The analogy that I use is that if you broke your leg as a kid and were too afraid to go to the hospital —and never got it set then it would heal crookedly. You might begin to feel pain when you walk,” she said.
“But once it’s set straight that pain will probably go away. That’s kind of what you’re doing when you’re facing your inner struggles. It’s hard at first, but then it gets easier.”
Julianna recommended the Canadian Mental Health Association as a place to go for resources to find help and information about mental health and mental illnesses.
More information on how to access mental health and wellness support in northern Saskatchewan are also available through your nearest medical clinic or wellness centre.
Julianna’s film ‘Broken’ can also be found on her YouTube channel
If you are or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, help is available at all hours. Support can be found at the Canada Suicide Prevention Service website. If you are in immediate danger, you can call 911.
A national 24-hour Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available to support survivors and those affected. You can access emotional and crisis support referral services by calling 1-866-925-4419.