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January-February 2017

2017 Kick-Ass Activist: Dexter Nyuurnibe

In 2012, Dexter Nyuurnibe tried to take his life. Now, he’s a leader for greater mental health awareness among Canadian youth

Emily Rivas@RivasEmily

Screen Shot 2017-01-23 at 10.37.52 AMDexter Nyuurnibe has the ability to command attention in any room. The 24-year-old is well-spoken, well-dressed, and charming. He’s a self-proclaimed lover of people, pugs, poutine, and unicorns. He’s that guy at the bar who ensures everyone is having a good time. He’s also probably the last person you would think would be struggling with mental illness. But this is the mindset, among other big issues, that Nyuurnibe is striving to change as one of Canada’s leading youth mental health advocates.

“Advocacy is really not about me in my mind—it’s about everybody else,” he says.

For the past four years, Nyuurnibe has been speaking at schools, summits, TEDx, and even the World Health Organization. He’s made it his mission to speak up against mental health struggles and break the stigma so no one ever has to feel the way he did five years ago when he tried to take his own life.

Before he was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and anxiety, Nyuurnibe felt like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders. In 2012, Nyuurnibe was in his third year at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S., studying aquatic resources and political science. Though he was active on campus and gave tours to incoming students, he was struggling. Some days, he couldn’t get out of bed. “I basically wasn’t able to go to classes, get assignments in on time, wasn’t able to talk about what I was feeling,” he says. “No one was talking about mental health at the time.” Feeling helpless, he tried to take his life, and was hospitalized. After being released from the hospital, Nyuurnibe started to wonder why no one was talking about mental health and decided to take matters into his own hands. It’s what he says was the first sign of hope.

But this revelation didn’t make things any easier. For one, he couldn’t return back to school. “There were a lot of issues, especially with my father. He was in charge of taking care of my tuition and wasn’t able to fulfill that. He had no idea about my mental state until things got as bad as they did,” says Nyuurnibe. The school, he says, also just didn’t know how to respond to his situation: “It wasn’t handled in the best way.” Everything about it—in particular, the initial visit by a campus counsellor and her hurtful attitude—was horribly managed, says Nyuurnibe.

People started to notice he wasn’t at school anymore. That’s when an editor at the school newspaper, The Xavieran Weekly, asked Nyuurnibe to write an article and share his story—his first step to becoming an advocate. “Writing that article meant coming to terms with something I’d been dealing with for a while. Something I had quite frankly been ashamed of,” he says. After the article was published, people he had known during his time at St. Francis Xavier came up to admit to him that they, too, were struggling with their mental health. In some cases, Nyuurnibe was the first person they told.

“My worry was that somebody else besides me would go through this,” Nyuurnibe says. “I guess that’s what up to this day keeps pushing me.”

Since then, he’s been pushing for mental health advocacy and change. Nyuurnibe believes that the new generation of young people will be the ones to push for and see policy changes within the country.

That’s why he champions the work he does with Toronto-based youth mental health advocacy group, Jack.org. The organization’s mandate is to transform the way we look at mental health by opening up the conversation with young leaders from high schools and universities across Canada. Each year Jack.org hosts a summit that gathers 200 young leaders, and in 2016, Nyuurnibe was the host—a shining moment for him since he had shared his story at the first summit back in 2013.

For Nyuurnibe, being an advocate means constantly thinking of a new way to get his message across. His latest project in the works is called Dance for Depression, aninitiative he hopes will bring the mental health conversation into an arena that’s comfortable for everyone through music. As a lover of electronic music and dance, he’s aiming to get musicians involved and people moving.

Though Nyuurnibe thinks the conversation around mental health in Canada has come a long way since he attempted suicide in 2012, he says there’s still work to be done. “There’s been a lot of talk, which is great,” he says. “But it has to start building up the the point where action leads to services and to people getting the right care. I think we’re on the right track.”

While some universities have improved their student mental health services, Nyuurnibe says one of the biggest challenges still facing many institutions is funding. But he’s taking action. In October, he met with Health Minister Jane Philpott on Parliament Hill to discuss funding around mental health.

When asked what his plans were for the next five years, Nyuurnibe can count them on and on. Among the top: graduate from a journalism program at Nova Scotia Community College, cut down the wait time for access to mental health services on campuses, increase funding, ultimately normalize the conversation by continuing to get his message out there. “It’s not just built on one story, it’s built on the story of many people,” says Nyuurnibe. “One life lost is one life too many.”

Emily Rivas is This Magazine's co-editor of Arts & Ideas.

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