Questions about the success of mental health programs in the NWT are being raised following a government announcement outlining the allocation of $2.6 million in new funding towards mental health initiatives in the territory.
Glen Abernethy, NWT minister of Health and Social Services, announced last week that the 2014-15 budget commitments for addictions and community wellness will take into account recommendations made in a report tabled last June by the Minister’s Forum on Addictions and Community Wellness.
“The NWT is a diverse region made up of many different cultures, with their own traditional beliefs and practices. We need as many options as possible to allow people to decide what works for them,” Abernethy told the Assembly last week.
Andy Langford, director of territorial social programs for the department of Health and Social Services, said the biggest concern identified by the minister’s forum was a need for access to on the land healing programs.
“The message is very clear, and that is that the land itself heals people,” he said.
Broken down, the funding will see $900,000 go towards on-the-land healing programs, $305,000 towards a wellness court, $895,000 for integrated case management and $500,000 for child and youth resilience through programs and education.
Last year, the GNWT drew criticism when it decided to pull funding from the NWT’s only residential treatment centre for addictions near Hay River, forcing Northerners to seek treatment at similar centres in the south.
According to Langford, the now defunct Nats’ejee K’eh Treatment Centre on the K’atl’odeeche First Nation reserve cost the government $2.1 million in its last year of operating. Those funds have now been reallocated to cover the costs of sending residents to treatment at four different specialized addictions centres in Alberta.
Mental health education needed
Paul Andrews, who led the Minister’s Forum across the territory in 2012 seeking residents’ input on mental health and addictions concerns, said a prevailing issue in most communities is a lack of understanding about what mental health actually is.
“When you talk about somebody having mental health issues, the translation almost goes to somebody being crazy. So right off the bat there is a question about whether we agree what the problem is, particularly for the unilingual people,” he said.
Langford said the government is looking into translating mental health services for all languages in the territory, but part of the problem is the stigma around mental health versus addictions.
“One of the challenges we have has to do with people not wanting to access the mental health system for addictions issues because it implies that if they have an addiction, they have a mental health problem. We are trying to develop a degree of separation between addictions programming and mental health programming,” he said.
The justice system also came under scrutiny during the forum’s consultations, with questions raised as to why the majority of those in jail are suffering from a mental illness.
“It certainly doesn’t help the problem that the way we deal with a lot of the mental health cases in the NWT is by hoping that by locking them up, they’ll go away,” Andrews said. The wellness court, which looks to divert those suffering from mental health concerns from the usual court system, is an avenue for change, he said.
First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities also raised the issue of the history of cultural oppression experienced by Aboriginal peoples, which can lead to mental health issues, Andrews said.
Funding for on-the-land wellness programs is a step in the right direction, he said, but the real solution needs to come from a desire to change in the communities.
“Us, as Aboriginal people, we have to start talking to our younger people about the people we come from,” he said. “We have to try and reconnect some of the young people with their spirituality, with their cultures, and start talking more about addictions in general and no longer accept them as normal or everyday.”