North

Award-winning Indigenous mental health programs struggle with finding funding

A lack of renewable and sustained funding for Inuit mental health programs means some award-winning Nunavut groups that tackle the issue of suicide are constantly 'scrambling,' a House of Commons committee heard this month.

'Nobody has stepped up to ensure our financial security,' says Ilisaqsivik Society executive director

The Ilisaqsivik Society's Inuktitut counselling program is nationally recognized, but still struggles to find long-term funding. (Vincent Robinet/CBC)

A lack of renewable and sustained funding for Inuit mental health programs means some award-winning Nunavut groups that tackle the issue of suicide are constantly "scrambling," a House of Commons committee heard this month.

MPs with the Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs are in the midst of a study of suicide among Indigenous peoples and communities — an issue the Liberals have named their top priority

"We need to do something now," said Don Rusnak, the Liberal MP for Thunder Bay-Rainy River.

"I don't want my [successors] 10, 20, 100 years from now sitting at another committee studying Indigenous youth suicide."

A newly released report from Statistics Canada once again highlights just how prevalent the issue of suicide is among Inuit. In a 2012 survey, one in 10 young Inuit adults said they'd thought about taking their own life in the past year; one in four said they'd thought about suicide at some point in their life. 

'Always at risk'

The Ilisaqsivik Society, a non-profit organization in Clyde River, Nunavut, that provides community wellness programs including a highly-regarded Inuit counsellor program, is one of many groups with which the committee has spoken on the issue.  

When the committee visited Iqaluit last month, Ilisaqsivik was lauded by nearly every witness. 

'Despite winning national awards for our work... nobody has stepped up to ensure our financial security,' Jakob Gearheard, the executive director of the Ilisaqsivik Society, told the Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs. (Submitted)

But executive director Jakob Gearheard says recognition isn't keeping the doors open. 

"Nobody has stepped up to ensure our financial security," said Gearheard.

"We are always at risk of not securing the resources we need."

Ilisaqsivik relies solely on project funding, most of which is short term. 

For Gearheard, that presents a very human problem — each year counsellors or other staff are left wondering if the funding that pays for their job will be renewed. 

"It makes my job really difficult. Instead of figuring out how to make our program better, I'm scrambling around trying to figure out if we're going to be funded next year." 

Suicide and mental health among Indigenous communities has been identified by the Liberal Party as its top priority. (Elyse Skura/CBC)

Innovation trumps sustainability

Another Nunavut-based group presented similar concerns to the committee. 

Gwen Healey is the executive and scientific director of the Qaujigiartiit Health Research Centre, which created the Makimautiksat wellness and empowerment camp that provides coping skills for Inuit youth. 

Getting long-term, sustainable project funding is a challenge, says Gwen Healey, executive and scientific director of the Qaujigiartiit Health Research Centre. (John Van Dusen/CBC)

"We received a five-year grant to develop and pilot and implement the program," Healey told the committee. 

"But then when we finished that [and] we had this wonderful program, it was impossible to try and find the funding to actually fund the program delivery now that the innovation part has been completed."

While the program received six months of funding from the Government of Nunavut this year, Healey said the group "continues to struggle" to find money that's sustainable.

Ilisaqsivik, which has grown to be the biggest single employer in Clyde River and trained more than 110 people through its Inuit counsellors program, echoed Healey's point.

"Funders want to fund always the new project, something that's never been done before," said Gearheard. 

"They often don't want to fund this ongoing project that we've been doing for 10 years and it works."

'A critical issue'

Both Gearheard and Healey say the problem does not rest with the Government of Canada, but extends to requirements laid out by a number of funders. 

"When we do get multi-year funding, it's perfect," said Healey.

She added the group would really benefit from core funding.

The Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs is studying the issue of suicide among Indigenous people in Canada. (Submitted)

Last year, Ilisaqsivik addressed that issue by taking matters into its own hands and opening a hotel it hopes will eventually funnel profits back to the group.

Gearheard underscored the importance of the counselling program in his plea for more funding security — "a critical issue." 

"Inuit have always had counsellors — those people who were recognized as trusted and respected people who had life experience, whom others could talk to when they needed to talk."

Through Ilisaqsivik's programs, those counsellors are now in a better position to help Inuit who are struggling with trauma, says Gearheard. 

"The Government of Nunavut should hire more graduates," he said.

"They should also invest in programs like this to train more Inuit counsellors and caregivers and provide more culturally relevant services."

About the Author

Elyse Skura is a journalist at CBC Ottawa. Find her on Twitter at @eskura or contact her at elyse.skura@cbc.ca.