There's no magic fix to the problems of additions and mental health support in the N.W.T., but small gatherings, community events and more talking about the problem are a good start.
That's what emerged from a conversation with the N.W.T.'s health minister, Julie Green, who was live on The Trailbreaker Friday to talk about what's working and what needs to change when it comes to mental health and addictions in the territory.
Green was joined by Paul Andrew, a Shutoatine elder and advocate for mental health and addictions supports, and Alyssa Carpenter, an Inuvialuit and Dene social worker and youth advocate from Sachs Harbour, N.W.T.
Green said she attended a community meeting on addictions in Hay River Thursday evening, which drew about 50 people.
"What struck me most was not necessarily what was said but ... the tone of the room, ... the fear and anxiety that people have for their family members who are currently in the grip of addiction," Green said.
"They are scared to death that their young people are involved in drugs … for what the drugs do and for the general violence that's involved in the drug trade."
Carpenter said she's been hearing similar concerns around addictions in the community.
"I'm seeing the outcome of what overdose and suicide looks like in communities that don't have support, that don't feel like they can trust the services for the individuals to come in with roles that are meant to be helping and meeting them and creating programming to respond to their needs," she said.
Carpenter said this is something that's not only limited to the region that she feels most familiar with — the Beaufort Delta — but it's something more territory-wide, and not just a problem for young people.
"There's a lot of people who are older and elders who are concerned or their families who have substance misuse challenges in their life," she said.
"I find the substance use one is the most … obvious, because you see that impact their life and in all the obvious ways, right?"
Carpenter said there's lots that can be done in the community to provide immediate support.
For example, she's helping put on a youth wellness gathering in Inuvik next weekend. She said the idea behind it was to respond to the need and to give young people something "that feels good before the holiday" which can be an especially difficult time for many.
"We wanted to give them something good but also make space for them to air anything they need to because they'll have support there and they'll have like-minded people. Those are things we can do frequently in the community," she said.
"You don't have to organize this big event or send folks off to long-term treatment. There's things we can do in small ways to help support people. That's what we're hearing that should happen more frequently. That's advice I would start with."
'Denormalize' being in constant crisis
Andrew said he echoes the concerns and advice he's heard from elders.
"We've got to denormalize what has become normal in the communities," he said.
"The thing that I've really tried to advocate over the years is that we've got to talk about it. Negativity thrives and survives on silence and secrets."
He said there should also be a spotlight on recovery stories to help encourage people to stay sober and to help those struggling with addictions.
He said if communities remain in crisis mode, there's a risk of "losing some of the things that are very near and dear to us — being out on the land, working hard, sharing, helping, doing all those kinds of things has not been not really happening anymore."
"Dene are the people who help each other, who share, who work hard," he said. "Those are the kinds of people that we are, we have to make that normal once again."
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Green said there are community-driven efforts that are going well right now.
Among those is the Dene Wellness Warriors program, she said.
"The fact that so many N.W.T. people took that program, did a significant amount of personal healing, as well as training as counselors and have gone on to work in that capacity in their communities ... I think that's been very positive," Green said.
She also said the southern treatment centres are working for those that do go to them, in that it can offer people respite from their situation, and a place to start their healing journey.
Support at home
Green added that there's work to do on making sure people can continue that journey when they come back to the N.W.T.
Earlier this year, the Office of the Auditor General, said in a report that the N.W.T. needs to step up its efforts in providing more robust aftercare for people coming home from treatment programs.
"It's important to know that people are discharged from residential treatment with a plan to help them to stay sober, but without, for example, housing, the opportunity for them to retain all their good lessons from being at treatment is severely diminished," she said.
Green said the department is working with four different organizations across the territory to develop a model for aftercare. One vision of this is a house for people to live at on a transitional basis, "where sober living is the norm."
"People have responsibilities to the household, they work, they try and adjust to a new normal in their lives," she said.
When it comes down to it, Green said treatment for addictions — and mental health — requires community-specific efforts, with support from the government.
"I don't think that there should be a centrally-mandated addictions recovery plan. I think that the initiative needs to be local, it needs to speak to the strengths of the community and what they can offer," she said.
"I think what the department can offer is funding, pathfinding. A way for people to obtain the resources they need to do the things that they're doing."