Isolation is the root cause of mental health issues in the region, according to mental health workers in northern Saskatchewan First Nations and Metis communities.
The challenges in communities such as Fond-du-Lac or Black Lake are not unlike those in Attawapiskat, Jennifer Conley, CEO of the Athabasca Health Authority said. While Conley didn’t feel the situation in her region is as grave as the northern Ontario First Nation which recently declared a state of emergency, she said outreach workers are still dealing with what has been deemed a “suicide crisis.”
Conley said isolation is responsible for everything from a lack of hope among youth to increased addiction rates, mentally exhausted staff and decreased programming opportunities,
“We have real funding limitations that (results in) less than 100 per cent coverage of mental health services,” she said.
Because the cost of living in Northern Saskatchewan is high, Conley said it is difficult to attract qualified staff, which leads to fewer support programs. Currently, the health authority offers healing circles, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and in-community mental health workers who speak Dene.
A psychiatrist also flies in from Ottawa for three days, four times a year. Conley admitted 12 days is hardly sufficient, which forces the health authority to rely on unaccredited, community members to help fill the void. While having someone – anyone – to speak to is valuable, Conley said the service is like a double edged sword.
“When tragedy strikes, it affects everyone and the resulting effects increase the vulnerability of everyone in the community,” she said. “When there’s one successful suicide in one community it doesn’t just impact (one person), it impacts the whole north.”
She said both RCMP and primary health care nurses are additionally burdened if the health authority becomes overwhelmed, which leads to higher risk of post-traumatic stress disorder, compassion fatigue, burn out and staff turnover.
“There’s so many traumas and deaths happening in our communities. (If) somebody is seeing a therapist, seeking help and another trauma happens, it puts them right back at square one all over again,” Conley said adding “I refer to it as the ‘walking wounded’ because we’re going through so many traumas and difficulties.”
Sandra Hansen has been working as both a counselor and a mental health and addictions manager with the Athabasca Health Authority. Hansen travels often for work, and not only is her region expansive but it’s largely inaccessible.
She covers an area similar to the distance between Prince Albert and the American border with some communities only reachable by plane. This makes the cost of Hansen’s services extremely expensive; sometimes unfeasible and unjustifiable.
“We’re so far north, everything is double or triple the amount,” Hansen said, adding it was also too expensive to provide food and coffee at any presentations or workshops.
Born and raised in Stony Rapids, she said it’s difficult to go out into the community and see people she knows personally struggle with mental illness.
“Sometimes when I’m out there, when I’m not working, I still work; communicating with them as friends,” she said. “I see a lot of suicidal thoughts, depression, grief, domestic violence, child apprehending, anxiety, anger, childhood trauma, financial issues, health and medical concerns, housing issues, legal issues…I can go on and on.”