The federal government released a national strategy on mental illness last week, and the territories are welcoming the plan.

Mental health is a serious problem in the North.

Suicide rates are among the highest in Canada, addictions to alcohol and drugs plague many, and the criminal justice system deals with a huge volume of charges every year.

The territories lack services, and as a result, police are sometimes the first point of contact for people in distress.

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Steve McVarnock, the head of the RCMP in Nunavut, said there has been a significant number of police encounters with people with mental illness in Nunavut. (CBC)

"Looking at some of our stats in 2012 so far to date, there has been a noticeable increase of encounters with folks who are suffering from mental health symptoms," said the RCMP’s chief superintendant for Nunavut, Steve McVarnock.

The RCMP in Nunavut announced last month a plan to review security protocols after a number of dangerous incidents in the territory, including the theft of a handgun from the Arviat detachment.

One of the things the national strategy calls for is that the federal government acknowledge the distinct circumstances, rights and cultures of aboriginal peoples.

"I have a lot of faith in the government that they will move with this," said Manitok Thompson, who served on the Mental Health Commission of Canada which created the new strategy. It took five years for the commission to create the strategy.

'Looking at some of our stats in 2012 so far to date, there has been a noticeable increase of encounters with folks who are suffering from mental health symptoms.' —Steve McVarnock, head of the RCMP in Nunavut

Mental illness costs Canadian tax payers and businesses more than $50 billion a year. As a former minister in the Nunavut government, Thompson knows the cost of treating mental illness in the territory is high.

Overall, the Department of Health accounts for 25 per cent of Nunavut’s budget.

Health is a territorial responsibility in Nunavut, but with the high costs, the federal government plays a big role.

"Change will not be possible unless people in the leadership roles take this strategy seriously and change their policies."

No one from the Nunavut government was available to speak, despite repeated requests to talk about mental health services in the territory.

Health advocate says strategy lacks critical element

A Yukon mental health advocate said the new strategy lacks a critical element. 

Sue Edelman, the co-chair of the mental health committee of the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition, said addictions are not considered in the national report.

"Addictions and mental health are inextricably linked. You cannot deal with one without the other."

Meanwhile, Edelman said there is no mental health strategy in Yukon, despite a promise by premier Darrell Pasloski last year.

"Premier Pasloski promised that there would be a mental health strategy for the Yukon, and they were going to be using federal monies for that mental health strategy, and that promise was made in Yellowknife in August," she said.

Edelman said mental health services for youth are also sorely lacking. She said there is often diagnosis, but a lack of treatment.

Stigma about addictions and mental illness also continue to be a huge problem in the North.

"The reality is that we have such limited resources. We have to deal with the two of them together. And part of the problem is that stigma around addictions and the stigma around mental health are so huge that people are loathe to come forward and get the help that they need. And even when they do get the courage and find out how to get that help - there isn't much."

N.W.T. set to table own plan this fall

The Northwest Territories is following the federal government's lead by putting more attention on mental health issues.

Health and Social Services Minister Tom Beaulieau said the N.W.T. is putting the finishing touches on its own plan.

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Tom Beaulieu, the N.W.T. Health Minister, said the plan is a welcome change. He said there have been calls to expand the territory's services and create mental health centres, but he said there is a lack of funding to do so. (CBC)

"I would say the biggest area of improvement would be the lack of attention in the small communities and I think followed closely by the lack of a treatment facility in the Northwest Territories that is targeted directly to mental health," he said.

Beaulieu said the new plan will primarily focus on prevention, recruiting more physicians and counsellors. He said the need for more treatment centers has also been identified but is not likely to happen because of a lack of funding.

The department said it will look at improving services at facilities which already exist.

The strategy will be tabled in the N.W.T. legislature during the next sitting.