Demand for mental health supports surprises crisis response manager

The leader of a mental health crisis support program for First Nations communities says calls for mental health crisis support have almost doubled in First Nations in the last two years, and he believes that those numbers are going to continue to climb.

Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO) is hosting its annual Chiefs General Assembly on the Opaskwayak Cree Nation (OCN) this week, and MKO Mobile Crisis Response Team Program Manager Greg Fontaine gave First Nations leaders at the assembly an update on how busy they have been dealing with mental health crisis calls.

“These numbers are increasing in a trend that I am starting to pay a lot closer attention to,” Fontaine said during his presentation.

According to Fontaine, in their 2020 fiscal year, the unit, which serves all 63 First Nations in Manitoba, served a total of 2,098 people, but that number jumped to 2,949 people served in 2021, and jumped again to 3,845 in 2022, about a 45% increase.

“So we are starting to recognize a trend,” Fontaine said. “And we see that the numbers have gone up more than 20% each year for the last two years, and I project that trend is going to continue.

“And if my projections are going to be correct, we are going to soon reach 4,000 people accessing our services.”

He added that the Mobile Crisis Response Team would like to offer non-crisis services in communities, but with their staff of 12 frontline workers, they can currently only handle the crisis calls that are coming in, as those calls continue to increase.

“We currently have 12 frontline responders and that’s 12 people for all 63 First Nations,” Fontaine said.

“That is a remarkable responsibility to carry, and I can’t say enough about how proud I am of this team.”

According to Fontaine, they began to notice the increase in people requesting their services not long after the pandemic began and he said that increase has continued at a level that has surprised even him.

“It has been a real eye-opener for me and our team,” Fontaine said.

Data released by the federal government early on in the pandemic showed that COVID-19 and health measures and mandates including lockdowns had negative effects on Indigenous people’s mental health not long after COVID-19 pandemic began.

According to a national study from the summer of 2020, 60% of Indigenous participants indicated that their mental health had become “somewhat worse” or “much worse” since the pandemic began, while 38% of Indigenous people surveyed reported dealing with “fair or poor” mental health since the pandemic began.

— Dave Baxter is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Winnipeg Sun. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.

Dave Baxter, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Sun