Camping and the ‘snowflake model’: How Nunavik groups are rethinking mental health
On-the-land programs becoming a popular way to help people deal with issues
Two Kuujjuaq organizations are trying to provide better mental health care in Nunavik through counselling and on-the-land programs.
The Isuarsivik Regional Recovery Centre is expanding its operations in an effort to better tackle addictions, while the Qajaq Network is working to end the stigma that has traditionally surrounded the issue of men’s mental health.
The suicide rate in Nunavik is drastically high – 177.1 cases per 100,000 people between 2017 and 2019, according to data from Quebec’s National Institute of Public Health.
The average for the rest of Quebec was 13.1 per 100,000.
Addictions and substance abuse are also factors. A 2017 Inuit health survey in Nunavik found its residents were binge drinking more than what was reported in 2004.
Isuarsivik interim executive director Qemal Cheema said mental health services need to be continuous. Otherwise, he said, people will relapse.
“It’s one thing to come to Kuujjuaq and then fly back to Salluit or Puvirnituq and have nothing,” Cheema said.
Isuarsivik is adapting to this challenge by using what Cheema calls the snowflake model, which focuses on getting workers located in each of Nunavik’s communities so they can continue to provide care.
They’re also going out on the land more, doing traditional activities like hunting, berry picking and honing navigational skills, said George Kauki, leader of on-the-land programming at Isuarsivik.
Going out on the land allows people to escape difficult realities they may face in town, he said, adding that he has done this himself.
“It’s helped me so much to go through my dark phases in life,” Kauki said.
Qajaq Men’s Network is also using on-the-land activities to help people in Nunavik deal with mental health challenges.
Junior May, the director and a life coach at the organization, said Qajaq focuses on men’s mental health because of the challenges men tend to face in opening up about the subject.
“That is their biggest barrier,” May said.
“Not just Inuit men, all men.”
Housing is also a hurdle. In the North, May said, if a man has a difficult living situation he cannot simply move somewhere else.
Nunavik needs 893 more social housing units to meet demand, according to a 2021 report by the Kativik Municipal Housing Bureau.
“In Montreal you could find a small apartment, even if it’s probably not the best,” May said.
“But in the North you can’t.”
Guiding men who have no camping experience to become capable hunters and fishers has been beneficial, May said, describing instances where those who have gone through the program have come back to tell him how rewarding the experience was.
“That’s a big thing for me,” May said.
But Qajaq also faces its own challenges.
Funding can be difficult to obtain because there’s plenty of competition for funding from different levels of government and regional organizations.
May said he wishes he could have staff in every community, but only has a budget for three.
Even with the challenges to providing mental health care in Nunavik, May said the ability to teach Inuit men to tackle their own mental health through learning traditional activities is worthwhile.
“It’s really rewarding,” he said.