N.W.T. addiction recovery survey finds demand for local, land-based healing

A survey on treatment for substance use disorders in the N.W.T. found people are generally happy with the quality of the services that exist — but want to see more treatment options available in their communities. 

People in recovery and mental health workers have raised concerns about a lack of access to medical detox.

The N.W.T.'s Legislative Assembly in winter. The survey, which was administered by the Department of Health and Human Services, heard from 439 people who have sought treatment for addiction. (Richard Gleeson/CBC)

A new report from the Government of the Northwest Territories has found that people seeking treatment for substance use disorders in the territories are generally happy with the quality of the services that exist — but want to see more treatment options available in their communities. 

Between February 15 and March 31 2021, a survey administered by the department of Health and Social Services heard from 439 people in the Northwest Territories who have sought addiction treatment. 

Respondents said they had accessed a variety of services to help them with their recovery — everything from one-on-one counselling (64 per cent) and health care services (37 per cent) to help lines (14 per cent), land-based healing programs (nine per cent) and homelessness-related supports (seven per cent). Most of the people who responded to the survey had used more than one of these services as part of their recovery. 

While nearly 30 per cent of people had participated in some sort of peer support program (including Alcoholics Anonymous), some respondents raised concerns about these programs' privacy. 

"There is no local treatment, and being in a small town there are continual rumours coming out of the AA group so I didn't feel safe utilizing this," wrote one person, who was quoted anonymously in the government's report. 

Stigma, or being worried about what people would think of them, was something nearly 40 per cent of respondents said made it difficult for them to stay in recovery. 

Land-based healing in demand

Only a small percentage of respondents had participated in a land-based healing program, but nearly a third said they wanted to access land-based healing but couldn't.

However, the vast majority of the people who did attend were very satisfied with the program and the changes in their life since they left. 

Many respondents also flagged a need for more detox services in the territories. Twenty per cent of the people who completed the survey said they had wanted to go to detox or access withdrawal supports, but couldn't. 

"Where is a detox with medical staff?" asked one respondent, while others added that "there's no support for people to detox in the community" and "a detox centre run by an NP and nurses is desperately needed."

Raymond Pidzamecky in a file photo from 2018. Getting access to detox in the N.W.T. has been "an ongoing problem, especially during COVID," he said. (Facebook)

Raymond Pidzamecky, a social worker and mental health counsellor who has worked in the N.W.T. for over a decade, says getting access to detox here has been "an ongoing problem, especially during COVID."

"We have so many clients that, if we try to send them directly to treatment in the south, for some of them we put them at greater risk because they're not able to practice a degree of sobriety that prevents them from getting derailed on the way down there — getting confused, accessing drugs, et cetera," he said. "If we had a treatment centre in the Northwest Territories, would that risk be mitigated? Would it decrease?

"I think yes, it would."

Wide range of experiences

In the survey, people reported a wide range of experiences in facility-based treatment programs. Some people described their treatment as "top-notch and very helpful," while others said the experience "was degrading and felt like I was back in high school. 

Most of the people who went to a facility for treatment (67 per cent) said they would have preferred to attend treatment in the Northwest Territories. They gave reasons like proximity to their family, the cultural relevance of the programming and anxiety about going somewhere unknown. 

On the other hand, the 32 per cent of people who would not have wanted to get their treatment in the Northwest Territories said going away helped them focus on their healing, that they felt more confident about their privacy and feel there are more treatment options in the south. 

According to the report, when respondents were asked about the barriers that stopped them from accessing the services they wanted, over 40 per cent said the service was not available in their community. Other common barriers were not knowing how to access the service (23 per cent), or not knowing that the service existed at all (17 per cent).