After four youth died by suicide last year, Fort Simpson is turning to its own wealth of community knowledge and resources in schools to improve mental health outcomes.
Making connections and building rapport with support workers is critical to protecting the mental health of youth, said Fort Simpson Mayor Darlene Sibbeston.
Training teachers to recognize and act on mental health concerns is one part of that solution, she said.
At Thomas Simpson Secondary School, teachers are taking part in Go-To Educator training, said Elissa Garrett, a program support teacher at the school.
The training will help teachers identify mental distress and help children access necessary services, said Garrett.
By giving teachers the tools to build relationships, they can be a “first line of defence, and a safe environment for support in schools,” Garrett said.
“We’re here with students most of the day. While we’re not going to replace counsellors, or be counsellors, we’re more able to give students what they need,” said Garrett.
“I think everyone wants to see the school be a positive place. We’re all working toward that.”
Liidlii Kue First Nation steps up to build programming
The Liidlii Kue First Nation “stepped up to the plate tenfold,” Sibbeston said, adding that the band is offering Lights On programming on Friday and Saturday nights from seven to eight in the evening to keep the youth busy.
The band also puts on a fitness program and the Open Sky festival, which is dedicated to the arts.
Sibbeston is urging support from the territorial government for training community members.
“For so long we’ve had mental health workers and they don’t seem to last long. They come and go,” Sibbeston said.
A model that relies on community training could fill some of the gaps created by counselling staff turnover, she said.
“Other communities are talking about hiring their own people because you know they’re going to stay. There is absolute potential for our members to go into the field.”
“If a community member checks seven out of 10 boxes to become a counsellor, let’s work with them and build capacity,” she said.
“If you don’t tick the boxes, you can’t help your community at this level. And then we have to bring people in. Sometimes its not about doctors or degrees. Some people might have a diploma program but have years experience. It counts at a grassroots level where the youth see these people as mentors.”
“(Youth) have trouble repeating their stories. If you’re seeing someone and they only stay here for a year or two years, now this individual is still in the system and having to start at ground zero again,” Sibbeston said. “After two or three counsellors, they don’t continue to go to counselling.”
“When it comes to mental health concerns like addiction or suicide attempts, loss of family, their head just goes around and around. These thoughts circling in their head aren’t being dealt with.”
Students access new mental health strategies
A February conference focused on mental health and well-being offered immediate strategies for youth in the Deh Cho to handle mental health, said Terry Jaffray, superintendent of the Dehcho school district. During the conference, the district was able to gather valuable information about what students want to see in their schools.
“They really liked the self-defence, the physicality and the fitness aspect of the workshops. There’s a safety thing for them knowing how to protect themselves should people not accept a verbal ‘no,'” she said.
The students ages 12 to 20 had opportunities to access Talking About Mental Illness (TAMI), a workshop through NWT Health and Social Services.
“What they enjoyed was the fact that they were able to have what one student called ‘real conversations.’ We haven’t had TAMI in our region before and that’s something we’d like to do.”
The Deh Cho schooling authority is also looking to create a health curriculum in schools that is driven by student’s questions and concerns.
“You’re supporting people through struggle. In an ideal world we’d have a couple of teachers in every community and a mental health worker and a nurse. We’ll start with this and I’m very hopeful we’ll have a good program up and running for the kids in no time,” Jaffray said.