A Sahtu teen sounds the alarm over lack of N.W.T. addictions treatment and wants MLAs to listen up

·4 min read

A high school student from Norman Wells, N.W.T., is adding her voice to those that have called for an addictions treatment facility in the Northwest Territories.

Sierra McDonald, 17, sent a letter to all MLAs in the territory outlining why the territory "desperately" needs an addictions treatment centre, as the N.W.T. doesn't have one right now. Often, those seeking help to deal with addictions have to travel to facilities in southern Canada, away from their family and community.

McDonald says many people don't like travelling down south.

"Because, when you travel down south, you face a lot of racism.... You could also feel pretty lonely yourself when you have no other family support with you," she said.

McDonald said while it can be good to travel out of the N.W.T. at times, it's not necessarily the best option for the long-haul.

In her letter, McDonald wrote that there is "lots of substance abuse" that happens in the smaller communities "and most people don't know about it." She suggests a treatment centre could help reduce those rates, not just in the N.W.T., but in Nunavut too, "if people knew there was help out there for them."

She also pointed out that amid COVID-19 tavel restrictions, people need to isolate upon their return home, which can be stressful.

When you travel down south, you face a lot of racism.... You could also feel pretty lonely yourself when you have no other family support with you. - Sierra McDonald

McDonald told CBC that a support system in the North would allow people to get help and be close to their "homelands."

Health Minister Julie Green said in October, when explaining why the N.W.T. government has no plans for local treatment centre, that when people go south for treatment they can get in "right away."

"They can be in a co-ed or gender-specific facility, depending on their preference. And they have access to a range of services which we simply don't have in the Northwest Territories," she said at the time.

Instead, the territory opts to focus on aftercare and on-the-land treatment when people come home.

Mental health struggles normalized

McDonald said in her community, she sees the impacts that addictions in adults have on teens. From what she's seen, they can sometimes play out in the form of verbal abuse toward the teen and can cause problems in young people's relationships when they're older, she says.

"A lot of teens nowadays have bad mental health due to the traumas that they have faced with their parents and their family members growing up with addictions," she said. "That can often lead to the teens seeing that. And ... think that it's perfectly normal to have [an addiction] when it's really not."

McDonald says a side effect is that mental health struggles are often normalized.

"A lot of kids my age go through a lot of depression and anxiety, and people don't really see that," she said, adding she too struggles with her mental health. This also leads to teens struggling with addictions in her community, McDonald said.

Young people follow in adults' footsteps, says McDonald

She believes children, seeing adults struggle with their own mental health, might turn to substance abuse themselves.

"They have no other … person to go to, like a trusted adult or anything like that to talk about how they feel about certain things," she said.

"So they take it upon themselves to ... try what their parents and family members are doing to cope with their problems."

Young people in N.W.T. and Nunavut are more likely to be hospitalized from harm caused by substance use than young people anywhere else in the country, according to a 2019 study by the Canadian Institute for Health Information.

The letter McDonald wrote stems from her time in a northern leadership course in August, put on by youth organization Fostering Open Expression among Youth, also known as FOXY. Part of that course involved helping out the community.

McDonald has so far heard back from three MLAs, including Hay River South MLA Rocky Simpson, Inuvik Twin Lakes MLA Lesa Semmler and Sahtu MLA Minister Paulie Chinna, who called McDonald's mother.

The teen is not the first to point out the need for an in-territory addictions treatment centre, and her letter joins other voices in the North, including Monfwi MLA Jackson Lafferty's, calling for similar actions.