N.W.T. needs patient advocate, social and mental health supports in communities say MLAs

·4 min read

On budget day, MLAs pushed ministers to boost investments in mental health and social supports, and to create a patient advocate so that residents feel comfortable speaking up about racism in health care.

MLA Jackie Jacobson wants the health minister and community affairs minister to travel to Nunakput and to see how community governments have been spread thin by the pandemic.

He also wants grief counselors in communities and for a vacant counselling position to be filled right away.

"Our government is obligated to provide service to our communities. I want our government to take this recommendation seriously, to work with me. Just say yes," he said.

Constituents in Nunakput lack necessary counselling services and Tuktoyaktuk's counsellor recently departed for another N.W.T. community, Jacobson says.

"You have to see the whites of their eyes to actually try to help," he said, emphasizing the need for in-person services and programming for youth.

"This COVID-19 world makes it tough on everybody."

Jacobson said youth programming is underfunded and "local community governments are stretched."

The Inuvialuit Regional Corporation is currently assisting community governments to provide badly needed programming, including adult treatment options.

Jacobson said Nunakput also needs assistance with the high cost of living and power bills and to create employment.

"I just want to remind the minister and the government that they're responsible for all people in the Northwest Territories. During this COVID-19 pandemic, please provide services to the people I represent in Nunakput and across the Delta."

Health Minister Julie Green did not commit to bringing the resources or tour of the region Jacobson wants, but will work to fill the counselling position as soon as possible, she said.

She urged anyone seeking mental health services to use same-day counselling services available through the health department.

"It's easier for his constituents to use the help line, to make a virtual appointment for counselling than to wait for health and social services to fill empty positions in the community," he said.

Jacobson said that for fly-in communities, driving to Inuvik to see a counsellor in person is not an option — from Sachs Harbour to Inuvik could be up to $800 one way, and for Ulukhaktok it would cost $1,000.

Create patient advocate to address racism in health care

Inuvik Twin Lakes MLA Lesa Semmler wants a patient advocate in each hospital for patients that need help navigating the system.

Last month, she saw a video of a Toronto man with a rare neurological disorder crawling out of a southern emergency department, dismissed by hospital staff.

"It made me think of Hugh Papik ... the death of an Aklavik elder who died after being mistaken for being drunk" she said.

On that day she read the article, Semmler said she found herself at the receiving end of poor treatment by N.W.T. health care professionals.

"I have been to the emergency department three times since being elected — twice to advocate for my children and once for myself. Two out of the three times I did not expect the treatment I received," she said.

Semmler is a nurse and former emergency department manager and the treatment she witnessed was "unacceptable," she said.

"I sat and wondered how many with mental health issues or who are Indigenous and people of colour are treated in our health and social service in the N.W.T. We all know it happens. Those of us who fall into these groups take it and very few complain."

Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada
Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada

Semmler said many Indigenous youth, Elders and patients from small communities harbour distrust toward the health care system, and that many feel their health concerns are not heard.

Minister Green said there are quality assurance positions and although they are not in the hospital, front desk staff should be able to assist patients.

Semmler said that in the absence of progress on getting more Indigenous nurses into hospitals, patients need a dedicated patient advocate with a health background to navigate the system.

Green said the long-term solution is to train people in cultural competency and to recognize the historical factors that keep people from accessing health care.

"There is no course in the world that is going to change somebody that doesn't wanna take it," she said.

Without a patient advocate, said Semmler, "our people are still going to be afraid of the healthcare system so they're not going to speak up, they're not going to advocate for themselves."