White Rock psychologist Jennifer Mervyn was recently recognized as a ‘difference maker’ in mental health. (Tracy Holmes photo)

White Rock ‘difference maker’ says stories of success, resilence ‘can be everybody’s’

Understanding is key to improving mental-health services for indigenous youth: psychologist

Jennifer Mervyn remembers well the question that quite likely changed her life’s path – its delivery was anything but kind.

“I was basically called out by an elder,” said Mervyn, noting the question came during her university years, around the same time that someone referred to her as ‘Indigenous’. “(The elder said), ‘Why are you not being a role model for your community?’

“It was not gentle, it was harsh. That was my push.”

Raised in Delta, the White Rock psychologist and mother of four said she wasn’t “at all” surrounded by her Metis culture through her early years, though her two younger sisters were more involved.

Following the elder’s question, however, that changed exponentially. She became driven to know and understand her history, her ancestry – and to ensure her children, who are Cree, know theirs.

“My kids were raised, since they were born, with culture,” Mervyn said.

Mervyn, 41, exudes excitement and energy when she talks about her family, and she is no less enthusiastic about her work in aboriginal mental-health services.

Her passion for bringing Indigenous mental health to the forefront was recognized last month by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, who named her one of 150 ‘difference makers’ in the nation.

For the past three years, she has been on secondment from the Ministry of Children and Family Development, working with Doctors of BC to support Local Action Teams of the Child and Youth Mental Health and Substance Use Collaborative from Burnaby to Boston Bar. While that position ends Dec. 31, Mervyn is optimistic the gains will continue.

“I really believe that understanding is half the key in making inroads,” she said.

For Mervyn, those inroads have grown from such seemingly simple steps as incorporating Indigenous traditions into meetings and conferences – like the giving of sharing stones, and challenging attendees to introduce themselves not by their names or professions, but by who they are as a person.

“You are a mother of four children, you are a proud auntie,” Mervyn said, as an example of what her own introduction might include.

When embraced, the practice “just transforms the whole room,” she said.

A legacy piece of the collaborative, she said, is that the need for “trauma-informed practice” has been heard. It’s about taking into account the impacts of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) on health.

Mervyn said a two-year study of childhood neglect/abuse/household challenges and health later in life (the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study) that looked at more than 17,000 patients determined that 64 per cent of the population experiences trauma before the age of 18. More than 12 per cent have a score of four or more.

Ranked on a 10-point scale, higher scores link to higher risk factors for disease and well-being.

“As soon as you have an ACEs score of six or more, you are likely to live 20 years less,” Mervyn said.

Noting her own ACEs score was “high,” Mervyn said building resilience is the key for those who are high on the scale.

As well, “the crazy, cool, exciting thing about it all is it can all be changed,” she said.

“There’s so much hope to offset the impact.”

Sharing that message, and how to bridge the gap, was part of this week’s sold-out ACEs Summit: BC & Beyond – which Mervyn helped organize, and where she led an Indigenous panel – held Nov. 14 and 15 at the Sheraton Wall Centre in Vancouver.

“There’s an appetite for this. I’m hoping it’s really going to transform healthcare.”

Mervyn is also adamant about including Indigenous youth in speaking engagements she is invited to. Recently, she brought a youth to meet with the assistant deputy minister of mental health and addictions, to talk about “something that was on his heart… what he wanted to see with meaningful youth engagement.”

Making sure those youth voices are heard is critical, Mervyn said.

Mervyn, who describes herself as “a tornado” – the list of her ongoing involvements, speaking engagements and tasks is too long to list – said success stories such as those she’s been involved in, as with her own, aren’t one-offs.

“This isn’t a unique story, it’s just the untold story,” she said.

“This can be everybody’s story. It’s so my hope.”

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