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Made-in-Nunavut Mental Health Act adopted

MLAs hailed a made-in-Nunavut Mental Health Act, passed in the legislative assembly Monday, that emphasizes Inuit-based approaches.
”The new Mental Health Act will result in safer care for patients, families, and communities,” says Health Minister Lorne Kusugak. photo courtesy of the legislative assembly

MLAs hailed a made-in-Nunavut Mental Health Act, passed in the legislative assembly Monday, that emphasizes Inuit-based approaches.

“I also support this bill because those with mental illness are often confronted and treated like criminals and many others who are mentally distraught are often just taken to jail or dealt with through corrections without any kind of support and we seem to be going in circles when it comes to people with mental health issues,” said Rankin Inlet North-Chesterfield Inlet MLA Cathy Towtongie. “This bill is a new bill and IQ (Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit) is very much a part of this.”

Health Minister Lorne Kusugak said the new act opens the door to greater involvement of family and friends as it better reflects Inuit societal values and aims to reduce suicides. There will be provision for the selection of a representative – known as a tikkuaqtaujuq – who makes decisions on behalf of a patient unable to choose treatment options for himself or herself. There is also a requirement to consult the tikkuaqtaujuq “at various points during the client’s mental health care journey and to notify them that certain events have taken place, for example, following a suicide attempt,” said Kusugak.

There will also be efforts made to have a support person accompany peace officers – when safe and practicable – during the apprehension of an individual in serious mental distress.

The new legislation will allow for early intervention, whereas the former act required that a person be at “imminent risk of causing bodily harm before the health-care system could intervene against their wish.”

“This led to situations where family members had to watch their loved one who declined care deteriorate until they are so ill that harm was imminent,” the Health minister said. “The committal criteria for involuntary admission have been broadened in the new act to allow health professionals to intervene sooner.”

The Nunavut Mental Health Act is also intended to enable some of those who have previously been hospitalized to receive treatment and support in their own community. Some individuals will be required to take their medications and be monitored.

MLAs questioned the sufficiency of existing resources in communities to act as mental health supports. Kusugak pointed to men’s groups and women’s groups. Victoria Madsen, acting assistant deputy minister of Health, added that there are also teen groups and she spoke of the value of a women’s sewing group, for example.

“Our paraprofessional, who is an outreach worker, spoke to the women about sewing this parka together and thinking of the parka pieces as pieces of their soul and of their life and of their body, and that to me, and to the group in the room, is Inuit counselling. It is Inuit culturally-safe services, and that is what we need to increase our paraprofessional group to be able to extend and we will,” said Madsen.

Even though the act has passed, the work is not done. The GN is committing to put together a mental health strategy after assessing the needs of Nunavummiut in regards to mental health and addictions. Kusugak said that objective will likely take a year or longer, exceeding the term of the current government.

Also in the offing will be training for tikkuaqtaujuqs so they are familiar with their rights and responsibilities. The department’s professionals and paraprofessionals who work in the mental health field will also get more training, including cultural sensitivity training in some cases, Kusugak said.

Madsen added that the GN is striving to have a dedicated “safe room” in each community health centre, which would prevent individuals suffering from psychotic episodes from necessarily having to be placed in RCMP jail cells.

Joelie Kaernerk, Ammituq MLA, expressed his support for the new act.

“Inuit counselling practices will now be in the forefront and we are constantly raising the issue of Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit and the issue of working together,” he said.

Kusugak noted that replacement legislation was the best option because parts of the former mental health act, adopted from the Northwest Territories, dated back to the 1960s.