Northern Canadians a priority in national mental health strategy

On Monday, the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) released their report, Changing Directions, Changing Lives: The Mental Health Strategy for Canada. The MHCC, funded by Health Canada, has a ten year mandate, which includes creating the recently released mental health strategy, working to reduce stigma, advancing knowledge exchange in mental health, and examining how best to help people who are homeless and living with mental health problems.
The 150-page report, which is the result of 5 years of research and consultation, outlines the Commission’s recommendations for the public, private and third sector. It calls for a multi-faceted, comprehensive, and targeted approach to understanding and addressing mental health in Canada.  The Commission highlights the relationship between other social determinants of health, such as poverty, housing, unemployment and education to all forms of health, including mental health.
In an interview with the CBC on Tuesday, Mary Simon, President of ITK, announced that the two areas on which she will focus her attentions when she leaves ITK will be mental health and education. Simon noted that mental health is inter-connected with many other issues and aspects of peoples’ lives, including education, employment, housing, and the impacts of residential school and other traumatic experiences. She spoke about the high rates of suicide in Inuit communities across the North, and her frustration with the lack of attention given by governments to mental health in the North. Simon stressed the difficulties she has had in particular, in getting the attention of the federal government:
I can’t seem to get through to the authorities that this is a real crisis, and it requires a concerted effort by people with the resources to be able to do something with it and to work with people like myself…The only way that our people will get through this inter-generational trauma is to get the right kind of support.
Federal Minister of Health, Leona Aglukkaq, was invited to say a few words at the launch of the MHCC’s report earlier this week. Aglukkaq called the strategy a “milestone” for Canada, and echoed the report’s call for a multi-sectoral and collaborative approach to mental health in Canada. She also announced $800,000 in spending on new research on homelessness and mental illness.
This important milestone in addressing mental health in Canada, comes at a time when funding for organizations like the National Aboriginal Health Organization and Pauktutit, is disappearing.

Some Highlights from the Commission’s Report:
Changing Directions, Changing Lives is divided into a number of “strategic directions”, including one targeted at “diverse communities and Northerners” and another aimed at First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Canadians.

       Strategic Direction 4

“Reduce disparities in risk factors and access to mental health services, and strengthen the response to the needs of diverse communities and Northerners”

The report highlights the lack of mental health services and supports in the North, and recognizes that mental health programs cannot simply be transported from the South and expected to work.
The Commission outlines 7 recommendations related to Northern communities:
  1. Act to change poor living conditions that can undermine mental health, such as overcrowded or inadequate housing, and lack of access to clean water and affordable food.
  2. Establish funding models that reflect the realities of providing care in northern and remote communities so that gaps in the continuum of mental health services, treatments and supports can be closed.
  3. Provide housing and other incentives that will attract mental health service providers and encourage them to stay in northern and remote communities.
  4. Enhance mental health training programs to match local people with local job opportunities in northern and remote communities.
  5. Support northern and remote communities to develop and implement mental health programs and initiatives that will work in their context.
  6. Strengthen coordination and communication between smaller communities and larger centres, and among provincial and territorial health systems when people need to travel to obtain specialized services.
  7. Increase the use of tele-mental health and e-mental health by building better infrastructure, providing on-going training and support, and greater flexibility in how services are funded.

       Strategic Direction 5

“Work with First Nations, Inuit, and Métis to address their  distinct mental health needs, acknowledging their unique circumstances, rights, and cultures.”

The Commission emphasizes the need to heal the intergenerational impacts of colonization, and to de-stigmatize and address the intergenerational trauma associated with residential schools, in particular. The report highlights the links between colonization and high rates of mental health problems, addictions and suicide among Indigenous peoples in Canada.
The report calls for resources to support “culturally safe” mental health programs and services for Indigenous peoples. Culturally safe programs refer to those that are “grounded in indigenous knowledge and experience, and [are] based on the recognition of cultural diversity and the influence that social inequalities and imbalances in power have on relationships between the service provider and the service user.” (97)
The report offers specific recommendations for First Nations, Inuit, and Métis based on the particular circumstances of each group, while recognizing both the diversity within these broad categories, as well as commonalities between them.
In general, the Commissions recommendations are:
• Close the gaps in mental wellness services, treatments and supports
• Draw on, and engage with Indigenous and local knowledge to provide supports and treatment for individuals with mental health problems and their families/communities.
• Increase access to training and education in order to build a mental health workforce in Indigenous communities.
• Increase the availability of research and data about mental health in Indigenous communities across the country.
• Build, improve, and sustain collaborative partnerships with other governments, including Aboriginal governments, non-government organizations, foundations and the private sector.
The Commission also profiles a number of mental health programs across the territorial North, including the Land-Based Healing Program based in Yukon’s Kwanlin Dun First Nation, the Mental Health and Addictions Community Counselling Program in the Northwest Territories, and the Ilisaqsivik Family Resource Centre in Clyde River, Nunavut.
Image credit: Mental Health Commission of Canada

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