Mental health struggles and the lack of resources to help Northern young people overcome domestic challenges often coincide and can fuel incidents of self-harm and even suicide.
That’s why the Native Women’s Association of the Northwest Territories led an awareness campaign on Sept. 10, which marked World Suicide Prevention Day.
Trish Bullis, the association’s victim services coordinator, has only been in the role since March. Her day-to-day duties involve receiving referrals, or “call-outs” from the RCMP when a sexual assault, incident of domestic violence, homicide or a suicide takes place.
The role involves going to family members for next-of-kin notifications following deaths and supporting individuals going to court.
She covers the City of Yellowknife, but is also responsible for addressing calls related to the Yellowknives Dene First Nation communities of Ndilo and Dettah, as well as Lutsel K’e.
On Sept. 10, Bullis, on behalf of her organization, led an effort to hand out close to 300 yellow ribbons to local high schools and to members of the legislative assembly as a reminder of suicide prevention. The small plastic baggies had a business card showing help line phone numbers, along with the ribbons.
“In my line of work, I’d rather take a call at any hour (for assistance with people contemplating suicide) then have to assist the RCMP in doing a next-of-kin notification,” she said.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, Bullis said mental health pressures and difficulties for young people are even more pronounced.
“We are really busy,” she said, adding that many among the homeless and people needing to talk are in their 20s and younger. “They don’t know where to go or they don’t know what to do. In my role, I’m left scrambling, trying to figure out what are the resources that are out there… there are a lot of gaps and barriers.”
GNWT and suicide awareness
The GNWT Department of Health and Social Services stated in an email that suicide is a serious reality in the North and one that the territorial government is addressing through several initiatives.
“Suicide, along with other mental health issues such as depression and substance use, are all important issues that impact the North,” stated Damien Healy, media spokesperson for the department. ” When a suicide occurs, it impacts not only the immediate family and friends, but the community and territory as a whole.”
Having non-profit organizations like the Native Women’s Association of the Northwest Territories makes a big difference in helping the territorial government serve its citizens who may be suffering from mental health issues, according to Healy. Specifically, the association “provides the integration of culture in the services and supports ” and helps offer different perspectives, particularly from Indigenous people, he added.
The government has numerous training programs to empower citizens to help each other with mental health. Among them are Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) – a two-day course to help recognize signs of suicide risk – and Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) fort Northern Peoples, which is a three-day course that teaches about different kinds of mental health disorders, how to intervene in a mental health crisis and how to help people thinking about suicide.
“Both the ASIST and MHFA courses are offered at no cost,” stated Healy. “Providing these courses helps to reduce stigma, build community capacity and connect individuals to resources.”
Citizens can take the courses by contacting a local or regional community counselling programs office.
Other initiatives and partnerships
Marking World Suicide Prevention Day and Mental Health Week and holding local community events and activities such as candlelight vigils or walks, are other ways to raise awareness, Healy noted.
The GNWT also provides the toll-free NWT Help Line and also is working on implementing an action plan to expand services called the Mind and Spirit: Promoting Mental Health and Addictions Recovery in the Northwest Territories: Child and Youth Mental Wellness Action Plan (2017-2022).
“One of the actions within this plan includes the Talking About Mental Illness (TAMI) program, which is a nationally recognized, best-practice program to reduce stigma and increase awareness and understanding around mental illness,” Healy stated. “TAMI is currently delivered to junior high-aged students in a number of schools in the NWT with plans to expand to additional communities.”