Mayor suggests his office as space for mental health workers in bid to get care for Gjoa Haven

Gjoa Haven’s hamlet council sent a letter to the minister of health and minister of family services in August requesting more permanent mental health care for the community.

Mental health is an issue in the territory; how to improve care has become an election issue

Joanni Sallerina says mental health workers can use his office space to work from if they need it. (Jane Sponagle/CBC)

The mayor of Gjoa Haven says mental health workers can use his office, if space is the barrier to getting more services in the community.

Joanni Sallerina and Gjoa Haven's hamlet councillors sent a letter to the minister of health and minister of family services in August, before the fourth Legislative Assembly was dissolved, requesting more permanent mental health care for the community.

Now they want it to be an election issue. 

"I think we need to change the strategy ... Mental health [workers] need to come into the community to help mental health patients," Sallerina told CBC.

No facility, limited aftercare

Gjoa Haven currently has one psychiatric nurse, but individuals who need acute care are sent out of the community — away from their support networks and family responsibilities — to Cambridge Bay, Ottawa or Yellowknife.

Sallerina says trips usually amount to a few days, without the necessary follow up care once they return.

If the community had a more permanent facility, Sallerina says health staff could focus on more preventative mental health care, such as helping residents cope with overcrowded homes and addictions. 

He says this kind of help could prevent things from reaching a breaking point.  

"Unfortunately Gjoa Haven has been experiencing a substantial increase in both homicides and suicides, which we feel are directly related to the absence of professional mental health support," the hamlet's letter read.

Gjoa Haven still has difficulty talking about tragedies in the community, says resident Robert Hunter. (Jane Sponagle/CBC)

The community is still having difficulty talking about recent tragedies, says resident Robert Hunter, whose cousin died after he was shot by police in December.  

"I believe every community should have a mental health facility. [If] there was a facility for it, people would be more open to opening up to talk about how they feel," Hunter said.

"It's a growing issue in community," Sallerina said. "That's why it was brought up in the council. As councillors in a small community, we have relatives who need that help," 

Candidates in Cambridge Bay, Igloolik, Baker Lake, and Rankin Inlet, have all made similar calls: more help for mental health. 

Not just traditional mental health care

Though what that might look like is up for debate.

Saimanaakuluk Kavik, a voter in the Rankin Inlet North constituency, says the rotating schedule of mental health nurses in communities "gets tiring."

"A less institutionalized approach to mental health, I think, would make a difference," she said.

Kavik would like to see more culturally appropriate treatment options, such as on-the-land programs.

"The biggest thing I think a lot of people would agree with is the inconsistency," she said. "One week it could be one person you're talking to and the next week it could be a totally different person and three months later you have to explain your whole story again."

Opal McInnis is a addiction treatment specialist with the government of Nunavut. (Jane Sponagle/CBC)

Opal McInnis, acting director of mental health and addictions with the government of Nunavut, says the plan is to increase capacity for mental health care in communities.

She says all communities have a psychiatric nurse — most of the time —  who can manage medications and provide referrals to telehealth or in-territory treatment.

These nurses are also responsible for aftercare for patients, something McInnis admits is a challenge across the territory.

She says the government is working toward having a psychiatric nurse, someone trained in counselling and a child and youth worker in each of the larger communities.

The government is also working to incorporate more family treatment, so parents of young children who need to travel for care can take their family with them, she said. 

As for space to house the staff, she joked she's open to using Sallerina's office, which sits empty most of the time because Sallerina spends his days teaching third grade. 

"Sometimes we have vacant positions, but the infrastructure's just not there."

With files from Jane Sponagle