Need for mental health program growing during second wave of COVID-19

·5 min read

Every week, more people are using the NAN Hope program, which launched last August to help people with mental health and addiction issues.

As of Jan. 20, the program had 247 clients who are receiving active care.

That's up from last week when the program had 235 active clients, according to nurse practitioner and Nishnawbe Aski Nation's (NAN) COVID-19 Task Team chair Mae Katt.

Every week, the program sees an increase in the use of services, she said.

“Either by more referrals from service providers, self-referrals or any professional services, nursing, police, child welfare or any hospital services,” Katt said. “If you look at growth of clients who are actively in care, we’re meeting our expectations.”

NAN Hope was created to fill gaps in existing mental health support services and provide confidential, culturally-appropriate support to all Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) citizens.

Since the start of the pandemic, the number of mental health issues like depression and anxiety has been on a rise across the province, said Carl Dalton, a social worker and CEO of Dalton Associates.

During the second wave of the pandemic, one in 10 Canadians has experienced thoughts or feelings of suicide, up from six per cent in the spring, according to the survey released by the Canadian Mental Health Association last December.

According to the survey, 54 per cent of Indigenous people have experienced deteriorating mental health during the second wave of COVID-19, up from 41 per cent in the first wave.

The statistics show that 20 per cent of Indigenous people have had suicidal thoughts or feelings in the second wave, compared to 16 per cent during the first wave. There’s also been an increase in alcohol and substance use.

“The NAN COVID-19 task team works with the leadership to protect the communities from the impacts of COVID-19. We do know the impacts are affecting many parts of the community,” Katt said.

Those who use the program include elders, adults, youth and children.

“We have children and youth that can call in. It’s concerning but also good because they’re not afraid to reach out for any assistance they need,” said Dalton.

The community-driven program was launched by Nishnawbe Aski Nation in partnership with KO eHealth Telemedicine, Dalton Associates and Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority.

In addition to providing a confidential 24/7 crisis line, NAN Hope also offers access to clinical and mental health counselling and connects clients to existing mental health and addiction support services that are available in their home communities.

“It’s not a replacement program, it’s to integrate existing services that are really going to promote the values, wellness initiatives, local traditions,” Dalton said.

“It’s integrated into treatment plans at hospitals, discharge planning. It’s integrated into nursing stations, it’s bringing services that wouldn’t be there already."

The services are available to on- and off-reserve NAN citizens from all 49 First Nation communities in the Nishnawbe Aski region.

On top of English, the program is available in traditional languages including Cree, OjiCree and Ojibwe. Traditional knowledge keepers and healers are also a part of the program’s roster of counsellors, according to NAN’s community update.

“I think it’s pretty crucial to have traditional counsellors and people who speak the language available,” Dalton said. “We’ve listened to what communities have asked and requested, and that’s not an uncommon request to have it in multiple dialects.”

Katt said providing services in traditional languages expands the age group that can access the care.

What makes the program different from other similar initiatives is that it’s an ongoing service, Dalton said. Clients can call as many times as they want or speak to the same counsellor if they wish. Navigators and counsellors also do follow-up calls with clients.

“It’s not just a phone-in and one call and that’s finished,” Dalton said. “If we get a referral from a primary clinician, a family member, from a citizen, then we do follow-up calls with them. We follow up on the treatment plan as long as their consent is given and we share information with primary care clinician. We also do follow-up the next day and say, ‘how are things today’, getting a feedback but also just making sure if they need, the services are there whenever they’re ready.”

Services are provided by more than 30 wellness navigators and on-call counsellors, according to NAN Hope’s website.

“I think there are a lot of workers in the community that are experiencing burnout and are overwhelmed by the number of issues going on that are out of their control,” Dalton said.

“That’s the limitation of mental health and addiction services, not necessarily sitting at home. Community service providers, healers, they get overwhelmed and they also need assistance and care. And the NAN Hope people, we’re here to support them. You want to make sure you’re reaching out even though they’re helping others.”

Katt said as NAN Hope is a new service, organizers didn’t have a big budget to promote the program.

“I think when you set up the service, you put most of your money in the actual service portion. I think in some ways we could’ve really looked at some resources to beef up our marketing,” she said.

NAN Hope services can be accessed by calling a toll-free number at 1-844-NAN-HOPE (626-4673), using a live webchat or sending a text through nanhope.ca.

Dariya Baiguzhiyeva, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, TimminsToday.com