'I wanted my son to live': Inuk lawyer leaves Nunavut to treat teenage son's PTSD and depression

Mandy Sammurtok of Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, made a decision to leave her home in Nunavut to help save her son's life.

‘It resulted in me not having a job, but my son’s alive. And I think that’s the best thing in the world’

Mandy Sammurtok's son, who struggles with PTSD and depression, hunting geese in Nunavut. 'He was most at peace when he was out on the land,' Sammurtok said. (Submitted by Mandy Sammurtok)

Mandy Sammurtok said it all started when her son began to self-harm last summer.

The 15-year-old from Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, started having suicidal thoughts. Then came the nightmares. Often unable to sleep, he'd get up in the middle of the night, pacing.

A few months later, he was placed in an emergency psychiatric ward in Winnipeg for more than a week, on the referral of a mental health worker in the community. This was after he spent time talking with a school counsellor, with no improvement.

Sammurtok's son was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder and depression and sent home. They were promised a followup appointment, but that never happened.

That's when Sammurtok realized she had to leave her home in Nunavut — the place most in need of mental health services in all of Canada — to make sure her son would survive.

"I wanted my son to live, and... Nunavut couldn't help me do that."

Sammurtok has worked as a lawyer for the Government of Nunavut and the Kivalliq Inuit Association, and as a criminal defence lawyer in the territory. (Submitted by Mandy Sammurtok)

A crisis with few solutions

In 2015, Nunavut's premier declared suicide a crisis in the territory. Inuit in Nunavut take their own lives at a rate nearly 10 times higher than the average in other regions of Canada. A 2012 study from Statistics Canada found nearly a quarter of Inuit have had suicidal thoughts at one point in their lives.  

Sammurtok's family left Nunavut in September. They've been in Winnipeg ever since, where her son is receiving regular care from mental health specialists.

Although he's currently not in school because his illness is triggered by loud noises, he's taking online courses. Sammurtok said she's working with a school to help him get back to class in September.

Meanwhile, he's actively participating in sports and recreation such as badminton — a sport that he's learned to love as a child. 
Sammurtok's son loves badminton, and is pictured here holding a medal he won. He was diagnosed with PTSD and depression last summer. He's been in Winnipeg since September receiving treatment. (Submitted by Mandy Sammurtok)

"That really helps him release some of his anxiety. And that's not something that he had back in Nunavut," said Sammurtok.

'Very poor services available'

Sammurtok was aware of gaps in the system long before her son was diagnosed.

"When I was a defence lawyer, a number of my clients suffered from mental health issues, and there were very poor services available," she said, explaining that she often found her charged clients had "cried out for help" prior to arriving at her desk.

"The problem with this is that that individual had to get a criminal record in order to receive the help they needed."

Donna Adams is the chair for Rankin Inlet's District Education Authority and chair for Coalition of Nunavut District Education Authorities.

Just imagine you work that hard to become a prominent professional, only to realize you have to let it go because you love your child.- Donna Adams

Adams said Sammurtok's situation was "definitely not the first and last."

"We need to go south, out of our homes, out of our communities for any kind of specialized assistance such as mental illness, such as disabilities," said Adams, who's also worked with Kivalliq Counselling and Support Services.

"We need those specialized professionals in the communities, and facilities to follow them," said Adams.

The "number one resource going for us," Adams said, is teaching youth to engage in traditional activities to help overcome mental illnesses, but resources are lacking.

Sammurtok echoes that idea. 

"He was most at peace when he was out on the land," she said of her son. 

CBC News reached out to the Government of Nunavut for comment on Sammurtok's situation but didn't receive a response.

'Nothing to go back to'

Sammurtok's decision came with a price tag: her job.

Since 2009, she's worked as a lawyer for the Government of Nunavut, the Kivalliq Inuit Association and as a criminal defence lawyer. 

She was one of a handful of Inuit lawyers in a territory that's been working hard to increase its Inuit workforce, especially in the justice system.

"That didn't have to happen," she said. "We should be able to be home. I should be able to work and my son should be able to get help." 

Sammurtok wants to practice law again, and is looking for law-related work in Manitoba. But it's difficult, she said.

"I was working in Nunavut to help Inuit, but I have nothing to go back to right now," said Sammurtok.

Sammurtok being recognized by the Law Society of Nunavut for her volunteerism as chair of the Law Foundation of Nunavut in 2015. (Facebook)

"A mother will do just about anything for her child," said Adams, who's also a mother and grandmother in Rankin Inlet.

"Just imagine you work that hard to become a prominent professional, only to realize you have to let it go because you love your child, and you'll do anything for your child."

About the Author

Priscilla Hwang


Priscilla Hwang is a reporter with CBC News based in Ottawa. She's worked with the investigative unit, CBC Toronto, and CBC North in Yellowknife, Whitehorse and Iqaluit. Before joining the CBC in 2016, she travelled across the Middle East and North Africa to share people's stories. She has a Master of Journalism from Carleton University and speaks Korean, Tunisian Arabic, and dabbles at classical Arabic and French. Want to contact her? Email or @prisksh on Twitter.

With files from Meagan Deuling, Qavavao Peter