N.W.T. mental health workers concerned COVID-19 could limit access to services

Counsellors and social workers in the Northwest Territories are concerned that COVID-19 could drastically change access to mental health services.

'Be isolated but don't be alone,' says a social worker, as Yellowknife healing camp closes

William Greenland, a counsellor at the Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation's healing camp in Yellowknife, says he is worried about his regular clients that cannot come to the camp during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

When the Arctic Indigenous Wellness Camp in Yellowknife, N.W.T., decided to pause operations, counsellor William Greenland thought of the people who come to the space for a "safe place to be."

The wellness camp has been a powerful space for Indigneous healing after two years in operation — but is temporarily closing to limit the spread of COVID-19. 

Greenland said it was a hard decision, but the safety of staff and community members has to come first, so now he and other counsellors are available by phone.

"It's difficult to sit at home," said Greenland. "We want to make sure our people are doing OK with whatever is happening for them in their lives." 

The Indigenous wellness camp near in Yellowknife on the morning of March 26, when it might normally have been busy with a coffee crowd. It sits empty now that services have been cancelled. (Walter Strong/CBC)

Mental health care providers in the North are switching to online or phone services in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Yet, some counsellors in the territory are concerned that these changes could drastically affect access to mental health services.

Social worker Raymond Pidzamecky said it's "impossible" for mental health professionals to be working at full capacity while everyone is self-isolated at home. 

Social worker Raymond Pidzamecky says he has received dozens of messages from people across the North. (Facebook)

"A lot of people aren't as comfortable or able to utilize telephone counselling," Pidzamecky said.

Pidzamecky has received dozens of messages from people across the North — from Fort Simpson, N.W.T., to Rankin Inlet, Nunavut — worried about their mental health during the pandemic. 

"They're telling me they have anxiety and they're finding it difficult to cope," Pidzamecky said.

This week, he posted a 27-page self-help strategy on several community Facebook pages that includes tips on how to move past an anxiety attack.

Pidzamecky said he hopes posting advice on social media will help ease people's fears. 

For people without computer or fast internet, none of the online options are relevant.- Anneka Westergreen, social worker at Fireweed Counselling

CBC contacted the territory's Department of Health to find out if any additional mental health supports will be provided during the pandemic but did not receive a reply by Friday evening. 

Addiction relapse possible

Wilfred Simon, a wellness and addictions counsellor in Fort Resolution, N.W.T., got a call from a client earlier this week who seemed to have relapsed into her addiction. 

Simon said his client wanted to go for addictions treatment but can't travel to a facility because of COVID-19. (The territory does not have any addictions treatment centres and people are referred to centres in Alberta or British Columbia.)

Simon said he worries that more of his clients could relapse during the pandemic.

"Say we get quarantined for two months — it affects you mentally, physically and emotionally," Simon said, adding "none of us are used to this." 

Counsellors are recommending that people go out on the land during this pandemic to help their mental health. (Walter Strong/CBC)

Anneka Westergreen, a social worker at Fireweed Counselling, said she wonders what services will be provided to those with addictions outside of Yellowknife. 

"There are some online [Alcoholics Anonymous] groups, but ... for people without computer or fast Internet, none of the online options are relevant," she wrote in an email. 

Indigenous people could be more at risk

Those in small primarily-Indigenous communities could be more vulnerable to poor mental health, Pidzamecky said, because they don't have the same access to healthcare services as those in major regional centres. 

The coronavirus could also re-awaken feelings of being unsafe that Indigenous people could have experienced in residential school, Pidzamecky said. 

Be isolated, but don't be alone- Raymond Pidzamecky, social worker 

"When those emotions are moving through communities, it can re-trigger people," Pidzamekcy said. 

Anneka Westergreen, a social worker at Fireweed Counselling, says there are some online mental health resources available. (Anneka Westergreen/Provided)

Simon and Westergreen said that Indigenous people should go out on the land, if possible, to help maintain their mental health. 

'Be isolated but don't be alone'

Social worker Pidzamecky recommends those struggling with mental health issues limit their news and social media intake during the pandemic, and for people to reach out more often to their loved ones. 

"Be isolated but don't be alone," he said. 

Pidzamecky said he hopes the government will create a targeted mental health response. 

Earlier this year, the territorial government launched a non-emergency mental health coaching service by phone.

The NWT Help Line is another resource available 24/7 for residents.