Pandemic creates new challenges for Nunavut’s mental health service providers

“We’re doing the best we can under difficult circumstances. But we are there for people.”

Staff with the Embrace Life Council, an Iqaluit-based suicide-prevention organization, typically travel throughout the territory to offer workshops and training. Those plans have been put on hold because of COVID-19. (Photo courtesy of Embrace Life)

By Emma Tranter

Elisapee Johnston is packing boxes filled with sweaters and jackets to send to communities she would normally visit at this time of year.

Johnston is the North Baffin program co-ordinator at Isaksimagit Inuusirmi Katujjiqaatigiit Embrace Life Council, a non-profit suicide-prevention organization based in Iqaluit.

Because of COVID-19 restrictions, Johnston and the rest of the Embrace Life team have cancelled their spring community workshops.

“We had a very busy calendar planned,” Johnston said.

With travel plans cancelled, Embrace Life is trying to support community initiatives from a distance. That’s why Johnston is packing up boxes of “swag” with Embrace Life apparel that can be handed out as part of community games and other activities.

“It’s hard to provide the kind of things that we usually provide because we’re not there to support them at the same time. So that has been one of the big things. And how else can we support the communities? That part is really hard to think about when we cannot provide the support because we’re not there,” Johnston said.

Johnston, who has worked with Embrace Life for over a year, said before the pandemic, she had started community training to create grieving support and healing groups.

“We do travel into communities to provide those kinds of training because it’s impossible to provide over the phone, or by email. The most important thing about that is you meet as a group and learn as a group and then they do the healing work together as a group,” Johnston said.

With community training and workshops cancelled because of the pandemic, Johnston said it’s a “waiting game” until things can start up again.

“It makes me feel kind of lost. The stuff that I have started regarding healing support groups, it was just building momentum.… I hope that people will still be seeking it once we can gather again. Because that’s my passion, providing any help regarding healing from all sorts of trauma. It makes me feel kind of helpless when I can’t see their faces,” she said.

While the pandemic persists, Johnston said Embrace Life is working with community health representatives to look for opportunities to fund community initiatives. Communities can submit proposals for funding directly to Embrace Life.

The people answering the phone at the Kamatsiaqtut Help Line, which operates 24/7 and is supported by the Ottawa Distress Centre, have seen a slight increase in calls throughout the pandemic, said executive director Sheila Levy. Since 1990, the Iqaluit-based crisis-prevention help line has helped callers from across Nunavut and Nunavik.

But it’s difficult to tell if that apparent increase is because of the pandemic, or because of physical distancing restrictions that mean only one person at a time can answer calls in the Iqaluit office, Levy said.

“We usually have two people on the phones, but we don’t have the room to be able to do that. Our two main phones aren’t six feet apart,” Levy said.

“We’re doing the best we can under difficult circumstances. But we are there for people.”

Levy said that volunteers have also been trained to respond to calls specifically related to the pandemic.

“Not everyone calls and talks about it, but a lot of people do,” Levy said.

“This is new. We had never talked about pandemics in training before.… A lot of people who are already feeling depressed or anxious or have been traumatized one way or another, this whole business of having to be isolated … [exacerbates] that.”

A 2013 report from Statistics Canada showed that 54 per cent of Nunavut’s population aged 12 and over reported perceiving their mental health as very good or excellent, compared with the national average of 71 per cent.

And in a survey of the general population, a 2019 report from the office of Nunavut’s Representative for Children and Youth revealed that 91 per cent of participants felt the availability of mental health services for young people in the territory is not meeting their needs.

George Hickes, Nunavut’s health minister, said mental health professionals have had to be creative in continuing to deliver services during the pandemic without being able to meet face to face.

“There has been a lot of effort put in by our entire mental health team not just in the territory but also with the people in the isolation hubs. It’s a very stressful time and we acknowledge that. But there’s still the ongoing mental health needs that Nunavummiut have experienced and continue to experience, and our mental health team works very diligently to make sure those connections aren’t lost,” Hickes said.

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