Michelle Stimson tries not to cry on Dec. 20 as she gets emotional talking about how much she needs and misses the counselling services provided by Many Rivers in Whitehorse. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

‘A mental vitamin’: Many Rivers client reflects on the impact of the ongoing strike

“It’s just kind of like getting vitamins and you’re feeling stronger”

Michelle Stimson didn’t know Many Rivers Counselling and Support Services was on strike until she showed up for her appointment the week of Nov. 2, and found the counsellors standing on the sidewalk with picket signs.

They told her they were striking. They poured her a hot chocolate. After a while, she left. That was seven weeks ago, and Stimson says she’s not doing well without the counselling she has come to rely on over the last year.

“The reality is that (the strike) isn’t done and that’s kind of hitting me that when’s that going to happen?” she told the News over the phone on Dec. 20. “There’s no light. I don’t hear anyone saying ‘back in the new year, it’s going to open up.’ I don’t hear any progress. It’s done. Its stuck in the water.”

The 18 employees of Many Rivers have been without a contract for almost two years. They voted to strike in early November after months of negotiations. At a recent press conference, counsellors said one of the major sticking points between staff and management is flexibility in work hours.

Calls to Brent Ramsay, executive director of the board of Many Rivers, have not been returned.

For Stimson, who says she quit her job two years ago to focus on her mental wellness, the lack of urgency around getting counsellors back to work is concerning. That’s why she crossed the picket line on Dec. 19, to deliver a letter to Ramsay. It’s why she delivered a similar letter to the Yukon government. It’s also why she called the News to talk about her experience.

Sitting on a stool, being photographed for the story, isn’t easy for Stimson. She doesn’t want to cry in a photo, but she doesn’t want to smile. She also doesn’t necessarily want to be speaking to media, she says. What she wants is a session with her counsellor.

To distract herself from the clicking of the camera, she talks about her three kids. She puts her hands in her lap. Whenever she stops talking, she spreads her fingers and her eyes flick over the pink sparkly polish she painted on her nails this week to make herself feel better. She laughs and says she wonders how many women in their 50s wear glitter polish.

She says she remembers, early in the strike, when former premier Dennis Fentie pulled the plug on the picket line’s sound system. According to striking workers, he was irritated with the noise. Stimson says he should try dealing with the noise in her head after seven weeks of not being able to speak to the counsellor who has helped her get to a point in her life where she feels like she has a voice.

Her family members still ask her, “when will we see the difference?” but Stimson says what matters right now is that she feels the difference.

“It’s just kind of like getting vitamins and you’re feeling stronger,” she says. “It’s a mental vitamin.”

And one she says is necessary at this time of year. The holidays are difficult for people.

Waiting doesn’t feel like an option, and she doesn’t understand why there’s a difference in the way people respond to medical health versus mental wellness. If she were to break her leg tomorrow, no one would tell her to sit tight for six weeks, and hope someone can see her then, she says.

So far, Stimson has been using all the skills she’s learned in therapy to make it through the strike. Still, she says she can’t say the experience isn’t triggering suicidal thoughts.

“That’s another swear word in our society, but I’m not ashamed to say that’s how it feels.”

“It’s odd what will trigger me,” she says. “It’s really supportive to be able to go down and see your counsellor once a week. Issues build up if they’re not dealt with.”

When people feel that way, she says it can be hard for them to speak up. You feel insecure already. When it then seems like no one cares about the service you rely on, that insecurity only deepens.

Right now, Stimson is continuing with a dialectical behavioural therapy (DBT) program offered through the mental wellness branch of the Yukon Department of Health and Social Services.

She says it’s useful, but because it’s a group session, she doesn’t get into the same heavier issues she would with a private counsellor, and seeing a private counsellor is part of the criteria for remaining in the program.

Pat Living, spokesperson for The Department of Health and Social Services, told the News that mental wellness runs two group DBT sessions, once a week, for a total of 30 weeks. She says a one-on-one counsellor is required in addition to the group sessions because they can address crises and help clients integrate the skills used in DBT.

Living says some current clients have been affected by the Many Rivers strike. She says mental wellness staff have been working to connect those clients with new counsellors, some of which work within the mental wellness branch.

Stimson says she was referred to a drop-in service offered by mental wellness at the Sarah Steele building, but she stopped going.

She says there’s no guarantee she’ll see the same counsellor every time, which means having to rehash her story. That’s difficult, she says. It took her more than a year and a half to build the level of trust she established with her counsellor at Many Rivers — a level she says gave her the confidence to dig deeper in sessions. The same confidence that allowed her to deliver letters to the legislature and call up a newspaper to talk about her experience.

Stimson wishes people who don’t access such services understood the importance of those services to people who do. At some point, she says, everybody needs to talk to someone who’s not a friend or family member. You never know when you might rely on having that separate space for heavy conversations.

“It’s a unique tool if you have the courage to try it,” she says.

That kind of support should be mandatory, she says, not a maybe in the new year.

Contact Amy Kenny at amy.kenny@yukon-news.com

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