Nunatsiaq News
NEWS: Nunavut September 15, 2017 - 7:00 am

Troubled western Nunavut town wants mental health facility

But health minister says "there are a lot of competing interests"

Gjoa Haven MLA Tony Akoak says his community needs a mental health facility to help deal with the growing number of social problems. (FILE PHOTO)
Gjoa Haven MLA Tony Akoak says his community needs a mental health facility to help deal with the growing number of social problems. (FILE PHOTO)

A long string of deaths and violent incidents have left residents in the Nunavut community of Gjoa Haven shell-shocked, and its MLA says the hamlet is in critical need of a mental health facility.

“The community of Gjoa Haven has suffered a series of sad and tragic events in recent times,” Gjoa Haven MLA Tony Akoak said during a member statement at the Nunavut Legislative Assembly, Sept. 12.

“It has become increasingly difficult for the residents to recover and move on towards healing without professional mental health support.”

Having a mental health facility in Gjoa Haven would allow people in need of care to stay close to home, Akoak said, and it would give families some respite, provide outreach and counselling services, as well as offer support during crises.

Nunavut’s health minister responded later to Akoak, saying if the western Nunavut community wants a local mental health facility, the best route might be to establish a society with various stakeholders who could provide mental health services.

Such a facility could then provide “a fee-for-service type infrastructure,” meaning that the GN would pay for the services supplied, said Health Minister George Hickes.

Akoak’s call was backed up with letters he tabled in the legislature.

A letter from the hamlet’s mayor, Joanni Sallerina, said that Gjoa Haven had experienced “a substantial increase in both suicides and homicides which we feel are directly related to the absence of professional mental health support.”

In 2017, among other incidents in this western Nunavut community of about 1,300, a 24-year-old man was charged with aggravated assault following an early morning stabbing, a woman was accused of fatally stabbing a man and two people were injured and two others faced charges after a violent brawl.

Another man, Charles Qirngnirq, who was allegedly suicidal and armed with a rifle, lost his life when he was shot by police in December last year, outside the Gjoa Haven airport.

Among other documents tabled in the legislature Sept. 12 was a letter of support from Vanessa Miles, the mental health nurse in Gjoa Haven. She said a mental health facility, which she describes as a group home, would also provide jobs for the community and “increase the morale of the community.”

Another letter of support, this one from Mickey Cain—supervisor with the Government of Nunavut’s child and family services department in Gjoa Haven—said Gjoa Haven should be the site of a Health Canada-funded healing facility that Nunavut is looking to build and that an additional mental health care worker should be hired for the community.

In the legislature, Hickes told Akoak that a psychiatric nurse and a mental health worker are already located in Gjoa Haven.

“Just to name some of the services that are available [in the community], there are mental health assessments that can be provided, monitoring and case management, mental health and addictions counselling, crisis intervention, suicide risk assessment, safety planning, appointments with visiting psychiatrists for patients, and, if needed, referral for treatment within Nunavut, or referral for out-of-territory care. There is also medical travel administration and access to the helpline and elder support line,” Hickes said.

“We work very hard with, not just providing clinical mental health workers, but also Inuit trained mental health counsellors.”

To obtain a local mental health facility, Gjoa Haven could make a request that would follow the normal capital planning process, through the Department of Health, with the government assessing the need, Hickes said.

But he added that, “recognizing the fiscal realities, there are a lot of competing interests.”

Gjoa Haven could also look to form a society, Hickes said, working with stakeholders, to provide “a fee-for-service type infrastructure.”

During his remarks in the legislature Sept. 12, Hickes said that he had recently submitted a proposal for a Nunavut-based mental health and addictions facility to the federal government, but he did not say where that facility might be located.

“I look forward to hearing from the federal government on how our proposal is met with,” Hickes said, noting that “not only is it a priority in Nunavut, it’s a priority across this country to provide more services for mental health and addictions.”

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