In the time of COVID-19
We are finding, coaching and training public media’s next generation. This #nprnextgenradio project is created in in Oklahoma, where five talented early-career journalists are participating in a week-long state-of-the-art training program.
In this project is a set of audio and digital stories highlighting the experiences of people whose lives have changed dramatically during the pandemic.
After graduating and leaving college, Canyon Plant-Haukaas found herself at a battle with her mental health and a changing world. Robert Haukaas reports on Canyon’s road to mental health wellness and finding support.
Illustration by Ard Su
A battle with mental health, while studying one’s identity
Editor’s note: This story contains sensitive content, including suicide. If you or someone you know are in crisis, please call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to talk with a trained counselor.
Growing up in Polson, Montana, next to the Flathead Lake, Canyon Plant-Haukaas always felt connected to her family and her tribe. Although she had gone through a lot of family tragedies, she didn’t realize the role her family and culture would play in helping her get through both her childhood and the COVID-19 pandemic.
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Even though she spent a lot of time living on the reservation, she had a hard time connecting to her community at large because the reservation was 80% white.
“It seemed like a lot of my life just revolved around being a Native American,” Plant-Haukaas said. “I didn’t put the identity upon myself. It was given to me at a very young age from some of the white kids who would say racist things. I felt like holding on to that identity is what got me through my years as a kid.”
Canyon Plant-Haukaas poses for a picture in front of the Yakima River. The color of fall is her favorite. (Photo by Rob Haukaas)
Feeling like the place she calls home didn’t have a place for her because she was a Native American and LGBTQ+, she put her focus elsewhere. That is what led her to leave her reservation to go to college when she was 16 years old. She went to study at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Sante Fe, New Mexico. Once she graduated with a degree in Indigenous Liberal Studies, she returned home with goals to pursue a master’s degree. When she got home, things were different, and plans changed.
Plant-Haukaas had to take care of her cousin’s children and her grandfather, who was in declining health from lupus. Her grandfather was the main caretaker of her cousins’ children, “and when he did finally die and those kids ultimately went to (Child Protective Services), I was completely heartbroken,” she said.
The COVID-19 pandemic was just beginning, and Plant-Haukaas found herself struggling with her mental health. Her grandma’s house up in the hills of Arlee, Montana, was always her safe space, but she couldn’t stay there any longer and decided to move closer to her parents and sisters in Yakima, Washington.
“Moving to a place where I had no friends, I didn’t have any connections besides my parents and a few of my siblings, it was really tough,” Plant-Haukaas said. “I felt … isolated.”
Plant-Haukaas was beginning to feel the effects of isolation, and the grief and guilt from losing the people she loved was beginning to overwhelm her. She attempted to take her own life, and it was at this point that she decided to reach out for help.
She found a psychiatrist but she said they didn’t see eye-to-eye about medication.
“You see a lot of families deal with substance abuse against medication,” Plant-Haukaas said. “And so there’s always been this weird mental block for me with taking medication, and I felt like she didn’t exactly understand.”
The sky is seen at Canyon Plant-Haukaas grandma’s house in Arlee, Montana. Her grandmother’s was a safe place for her when she was struggling with her mental health. (Photo courtesy of Canyon Plant-Haukaas)
She tried many medications over six months while seeing the psychiatrist, but it didn’t help, Plant-Haukaas said.
“My mental health was declining even after the suicide attempt, and it just felt like I wasn’t getting the help I need or reaching people that understood me fully,” she said. “I developed a skin disorder from stress. I decided to stop taking my medication because of it.”
Canyon Plant-Haukaas and her sisters sit by the Yakima River. (Photo by Rob Haukaas)
Plant-Haukaas stopped taking her medications and focused on her family. She realized that there were other ways to heal. Her sisters, Arabella and Savannah, helped her cope.
She saw them as encouragement to try and heal. Plant-Haukaas chose something to live for. To her, that was a start.
“So living with them (Arabella and Savannah), it heals my heart a little bit. It made me realize that like there are people out there who are worth caring for and her worth being there for. When I look at my sisters, I see hope. I just hope that they’re going to have a good life, and watching them have a good life will encourage me to do better for myself,” she said.
Plant-Haukaas is still in the process of healing.
“I hope that I’m able to get over these tough couple years that I’ve been through and just be able to finally find a little peace,” she said. “(For my) community, I hope that they’ll find the same. I hope there’s more mental health resources that are accessible, and that aren’t just accessible, but actually helpful.”
Plant-Haukaas said that after her suicide attempt, she goes to see her sisters every day. Their latest activity is binge-watching “The Simpsons” daily.
“With my sisters, I feel loved and appreciated. I also feel pretty careless, like there isn’t anything that could really affect me at that time,” she said. “I feel just safe with them.”
Canyon Plant-Haukaas (right) sits by the Yakima River with her sisters (from left) Arabella, 9, and Savannah, 10. (Photo by Rob Haukaas)
This is one of the clay sculptures Canyon Plant-Haukaas made throughout the pandemic. Creating things out of clay has always been a passion of Plant-Haukaas. (Photo by Rob Haukaas)