COVID study shows that more mental health supports are needed on First Nations

By Jake Cardinal, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter 

(ANNews) – A new report by a committee of MPs — who spent the past year studying the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on Indigenous populations in Canada — has revealed that the reservations, many of which have very limited access to resources, need extra mental health support during the pandemic.

A grim picture was painted by representatives of dozens of First Nations, Inuit, and Metis communities and organizations in regards to the state of health and social infrastructure in their jurisdictions.

Mental health, addictions, and suicide crises were huge problems for many Indigenous people prior to COVID-19 — but the pandemic has exponentially increased these issues. People are more isolated than ever and access to mental health services is hindered due to lockdowns, cancelled programming, closed public buildings and staff burnout.

Limited access to therapy and treatment centres has led to cases of substance withdrawal syndrome in some communities under lockdown and an increase in the number and severity of violent incidents in others.

“The anxiety of the pandemic weighs on all of us, and for First Nations these stresses have been compounded for many people due to pre-existing mental health concerns, often a result of intergenerational trauma,” Alberta Regional Chief for the Assembly of First Nations, Marlene Poitras, told the committee in November.

Erik Blaney, executive council member of the Tla’amin Nation in British Columbia, also told the committee, “We needed some serious help to battle the drug and alcohol and domestic housing issues that were causing our cases to rise dramatically.”

“It was then that we realized we were in a dual pandemic, with the many opioid overdoses happening within the community.”

The committee compiled a comprehensive list of over 40 recommendations, including calling for more dedicated emergency mental health supports and a review of federal funding mechanisms to ensure Indigenous communities have access to adequate, flexible and predictable funding for mental health and addictions treatment in their own communities.

The Federal Government of Canada committed $82.5 million in new funding for better access to mental health supports, which is in addition to $425 million in existing annual funding marked for Indigenous mental health.

However, many feel that it is not enough. Some, like Carol Hopkins, Executive Director of the Thunderbird Partnership Foundation, brought up issues of longevity and stability for the funding and believes that more sustained resources are needed.

Brenda Restoule, CEO of the First Peoples Wellness Centre in north-eastern Ontario, agreed, noting mental wellness supports and services in Indigenous communities have been “consistently underfunded compared to Canadians, resulting in a patchwork of supports and services that vary across the country.”

“Mental wellness teams and (addictions) treatment centres have already shifted services to virtual platforms, but the shift is hampered by poor connectivity and accessibility to technology as well as limitations in workforce capacity related to both reliable and culturally relevant information on ethics, privacy and liability, and access to supervision and IT support,” Restoule said.

“Investments in connectivity, infrastructure, technology, sustained access to virtual care and human resources must happen more immediately. Otherwise, the gap in health inequity for Indigenous People will continue to grow.”

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