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Yukon government unveils mental health strategy

Yukon's long-anticipated mental wellness strategy has been released, eliciting qualified optimism.

Yukon’s long-anticipated mental wellness strategy has been released, eliciting qualified optimism.

Health and Social Services Minister Mike Nixon spoke alongside Council of Yukon First Nations Grand Chief Ruth Massie, Kwanlin Dun Chief Doris Bill and the volunteer-based Mental Health Association Yukon to announce the 62-page strategy at the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre on Thursday.

The room was full of community mental health care providers and leaders, in addition to Whitehorse RCMP Inspector Archie Thompson and corrections superintendent Jayme Curtis.

The 10-year strategy titled “Forward Together” provides over-arching direction for the various mental health services across the territory.

It outlines key priorities and sets the stage for ongoing collaboration to improve the situation for the 7,500 Yukoners estimated to suffer from mental health or substance abuse each year.

“We recognize it’s not about working harder, it’s about working smarter,” Nixon said.

“I think we can all agree the strategy has been a long time coming.”

The Yukon is one of the last jurisdictions to create a mental-health strategy, despite many calls for more resources and coordinated actions to address urgent needs.

The first two years of the strategy will focus on children, families and youth. Other key focus areas include building community capacity and improving access for remote communities.

When asked how the government plans to measure progress in the coming years, Nixon replied: “We will be appointing people to oversee and assess outcomes.”

The report outlines the creation of cross-departmental committees and working groups. This will likely be on a volunteer basis, Nixon said.

Grand Chief Massie told the News the new strategy marks a continuation of existing efforts.

“At the Council of Yukon First Nations we’ve been working quite diligently on this for the last six years.”

But, she said, “It’s the first time all organizations have gone through the formal steps of collaborating.”

The Grand Chief said she looks forward to continuing to work on a government-to-government basis, cautioning: “The proof will be in the implementation of the strategy.”

“We know this ten-year strategy will not and cannot immediately address all the gaps in the mental wellness system,” Nixon acknowledged in his speech.

Described as a “living document,” the strategy is meant to evolve over time.

Both indigenous leaders noted the importance incorporating Truth and Reconciliation Report calls to action in the wellness strategy.

“The historical trauma of the Indian Residential School system has had ongoing inter-generational effects on the psychological wellbeing of our people and our communities,” Bill said, highlighting substance abuse, addiction, suicide and violence as specific challenges.

Nixon cited $1 million dedicated in this fiscal year towards the mental health strategy initiatives. He acknowledged that may not be enough to address some of the needs in rural and remote communities.

“We all recognize the resources this will take,” he said. “It is important to recognize we can’t always be all things to all people.”

Nixon also pointed to contracts being expanded, such as Many Rivers Counselling. The non-profit assumed responsibility for programming previously offered by the drop-in centre, Second Opinion Society, in late November of last year.

But critics remain concerned about how increased coordination alone can address concurrent mental-health conditions, FASD, addiction, and sexualized violence that shake territorial communities.

“There are never enough resources,” Massie told the News.

Opposition Health Critic Jan Stick said she appreciated the acknowledgment of shortcomings but had hoped to see clear, measurable goals.

“For example, we know that right now outpatient counselling wait times are around 9-12 months,” she said. “A clear goal in one year would be to reduce wait times by half.”

Instead, said Stick, the report lacks tangible objectives. “You can’t manage what you don’t measure.”

“My disappointment and concern is that we see a whole lot more committees coming up to address these things, which is just further delay.”

Stick said the volunteer-based strategy committees also concern her. “These organizations are already operating on a shoestring.”

“It’s fine if you want government workers to go to meetings, but to add this onto the NGO workload without more money to hire someone to be on those committees, then it becomes a burden.”

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