Social work, mental health under the microscope at MMIWG hearings
“It needs to come from a place of no judgment”
Front-line workers providing social services in Nunavut need trauma-informed training and Inuit-specific approaches, said the three panellists on the last day of Iqaluit hearings at the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
Instead of expecting people to “suffer in dignified ways,” such as having to show up sober, front-line workers “need to be able to meet someone in need exactly where they are at,” Jasmine Redfern said at the Frobisher Inn on Thursday, Sept. 13.
Redfern is a gay Inuk second-year law student in Iqaluit, involved in community youth work.
She and two others, TJ Lightfoot and Jeffrey McNeil-Seymour, testified as experts on Wednesday’s and Thursday’s panel on Indigenous health and well-being. They covered broad topics including crisis intervention and sexual health, as well as LGBTQ2S experiences.
Originally from the Elsipogtog First Nation in New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia, but now living in Iqaluit, Lightfoot has a graduate degree in environmental policy.
Speaking about the delivery of social services, Lightfoot, a two-spirit Mi’kmaw, said “it needs to come from a place of no judgment.”
McNeil-Seymour also identifies as two spirit and currently teaches decolonization of social work at Ryerson University.
In McNeil-Seymour’s social work courses, the students are taught to refrain from calling those who come in for resources “clients.” Instead, they call them “people we are walking beside” and “people we are in service to.”
The students also get acquainted with the land, language, history and culture of the location in which they work. While teaching in Kamloops, for instance, they would do culturally relevant activities like picking sage.
“In my approach, I stress repeatedly that the service is going to look different in whichever nation you are walking in and that there is going to be a time of building those relationships, of coming to understand,” McNeil-Seymour said.
In Nunavut communities, however, social workers who come from the south rarely have much prior knowledge about the territory before moving there for work. And social workers in Nunavut typically only stay for two years or less, said Beth Symes, a lawyer representing Pauktuutit.
That means it’s “hard to be able to learn all of those teachings (within two years) in order to be able to walk with Inuit,” Symes said.
On Tuesday, commissioners heard from Dr. Janet Smylie that mainstream approaches to trauma are generally based on soldiers’ experiences and are not designed to deal with chronic intergenerational trauma.
Redfern was asked on Wednesday if she had any suggestions to make mental health services more useful to Indigenous people.
Part of the problem, she said, was that mental health funding only covers crises that must be resolved in a limited number of sessions.
“What I would really like to see is these funding programs framed in a way that allows people to self-identify what a crisis is … and to allow people to also identify when that need ends,” Redfern said.
“When someone comes to us for help, I would like to see the policy be: let’s figure out how to get this person help, then we’ll figure out the details afterward. Because they are coming to us with a need now.”
Lightfoot added that a person’s fundamental needs should be considered during the treatment of mental health issues. That could include the need for housing or food, or even just someone to talk to.
As Nunavut sees the highest rate of suicide in Canada, the panellists were also asked for their thoughts on suicide prevention.
Lightfoot listed access to safe and adequate housing as a main priority. Although the Government of Nunavut has been putting money toward this, Lightfoot said, it unfortunately is still not enough.
“One of the things that I have seen that is working well is breakfast and lunch programs for children and youth. Everyone that goes to school from kindergarten to Grade 12 has access to food security, at least for those two meals during the day,” Lightfoot said.
A 24/7 youth centre and additional services for young men and elders, who, statistics show, are at greater risk for suicide in Nunavut, were proposed by Lightfoot as additional measures that could help.
Redfern agreed and added that she thinks another important point is “just doing as much as we can to unburden people’s lives” by making sure they have their basic needs for health met.
“One of the things that we’ve been talking about here in Nunavut is early childhood education and early childhood development as an opportunity for intervention in ensuring that people build healthy relationships, build healthy social and emotional skills that can help foster resiliency across the life span,” Redfern said.
As well, “We also need to support people before they are in immediate crisis,” said Redfern.
That means “building a culture of wellness where we’re not only asking people to come forward when it is an immediate need, but normalizing health and health-seeking behaviours across the spectrum,” she said.