Championing Indigenous mental health and recovery from addiction

Growing up on the Stony Nakoda Nation known as Mini Thni’, Skilee Dixon developed a strong desire to help others from an early age. As a third generation Indian Residential School survivor, Skilee has both heard the horrors of what her family has gone through as well as experienced the effects of intergenerational trauma.

She credits her mother and father for being a positive influence, instilling in all her siblings the importance of education. Skilee remembers her mom saying to her, “Your education is your ticket to freedom. You can do anything with it and it’s something no one can take away from you.”

From Kindergarten to Grade 12, Skilee had a daily journey of two-and-a-half-hours each way on a bus to attend school in Cochrane, Alberta. Every morning, she would wake at 5:30am to get ready for the day ahead. Getting her education off the reserve presented a markedly distinct lifestyle, offering her a glimpse into a world where most of her peers were non-Indigenous.  

“Indigenous people often live two lives. We have to understand the Western way of how people live, and we have our way, our spiritual practices and how we live our life,” Skilee explains.

Drawing from many of the experiences she had while living on reserve, she decided to address the intricate challenges surrounding mental health and addiction within her community, propelling her to pursue additional education. In 2021, she received an Indigenous Mental Health diploma and she most recently completed a degree in Health Sciences with a major in Aboriginal Health from the University of Lethbridge.

Skilee was awarded one of three Indigenous Health Scholarships from Calgary Health Foundation for the excellence she’s shown in pursuing education in a health care field and dedication to helping her community.

“It truly makes me feel honoured. We need more of our people to be in this area, to be able to bridge the gap between Western and Indigenous ways. Being the recipient of this award means so much to me.”

Relieving some of the financial burden helped Skilee immensely, particularly because she was supporting her family and doing a practicum took time away from her job.

She currently is the manager of the Stoney Nakoda Adult Treatment Centre where she creates programs, policies, and procedures for both the day treatment and 90-day live-in treatment programs that are offered at the centre. While counselling isn’t part of her job, she often finds she does a lot of counselling because of the unique relationship she has with clients. 

“I want to give back to my community and share the knowledge and education I’ve received. I want to bridge the gap between Indigenous and Western health. I hope I can help people understand who we are, what we need and what health means to us.”

Skilee believes that a better healing journey incorporates culture, spiritual ways of learning, and connecting Indigenous people back to their identity and their language.

She has seen firsthand how difficult it is to combat mental health and addiction.

“It used to just be alcohol but now we’re in a time where all the street drugs and opioids are expanding and being mixed with other substances. People are addicted even more strongly and it’s different than it used to be.” 

The need for services and people that are working to alleviate all the issues that stem from mental health and addiction is considerable, driving Skilee to do as much as possible for her community.

Her empathy comes from a challenging childhood, but one that she still looks back on as being better than many of her peers.

“I was really fortunate to have good supports that a lot of people don’t have in my community. I had parents to come home to and a roof over my head. So many in my community came from overcrowded homes and poverty.”

She knows the percentage of people in her community who went on to pursue an education is very small, which is why she wants to continue to work with Indigenous people. Skilee draws her strength from her family, particularly, her grandfather.

“My grandfather used to always tell me that our people are some of the strongest people because of what we’ve been through in the past. We get to live in two different worlds and we’re strong enough to live two lives.”

She credits the encouragement and wisdom from him for preparing her from a young age to have a broader understanding of what it’s like outside of the reserve, as well as pushing her to be independent.

Skilee also was very involved in sports, playing hockey at an elite level. Her love for sports was an outlet for her, and she believes being outdoors and active in athletics saved her from a lot of the pitfalls her peers fell into.

Skilee has already made significant contributions to her community and her unwavering dedication to aiding in its healing assures that she will continue to do so.  

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