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Nunavummiut say mental health care must change

How many times can you share your pain without making progress to heal?
Organizers of the mental health rally in Rankin Inlet gather. From left to right are Meagan Akumalik Netser, Leonie Sammurtok and Emily van der Kamp. Not pictured are George Aksadjuak and Nicole Ymana. Photo courtesy of Meagan Akumalik Netser

How many times can you share your pain without making progress to heal?

That’s what Rankinmiut and many across the territory are asking themselves, their communities and the Government of Nunavut.

On the heels of a youth-led protest for better mental health treatment and suicide prevention in Iqaluit, Rankin Inlet residents will be holding a rally of their own.

“Mental health care in Nunavut is very poor,” said Meagan Akumalik Netser, one of the organizers of the mental health movement scheduled for Nov. 28.

“I’ve experienced it myself. Trying to speak with a mental health nurse is hard because the mental health nurses are always so transient. There’s always a new one coming in. We have to re-tell our heartbreaking story over and over again. And the suicide rate in Nunavut is so high … I’m just tired of our people dying.”

Glenn Woodford, Kissarvik Co-op Retail Store Manager, knows how difficult dealing with mental health issues can be due to the transient aspect of support staff.

He said he doesn’t intend to criticize anyone and the job that health care staff do in Rankin Inlet is admirable, but he too felt let down after sharing his story with a nurse, only for that person to leave town.

When a new one comes in, “now you’ve got to start right from the beginning,” said Woodford, “and start over again because someone new wants to know you and try to help you. And their intention is admirable, their intention to help is real, but they don’t stay around long enough. So that in itself is nothing but frustration to the patient. So why bother? And then there’s that feeling of let-down.”

Though the recent protest in Iqaluit was led by youth, Woodford knows these struggles affect people in all walks of life.

“I have a number of staff working with me, and I have to be professional,” he said. “But being professional and running a business doesn’t mean that I’m not human, because I am. And like everybody else, I feel pressure too. There are times I need help and I don’t mind saying that.”

When he saw Netser’s post on Facebook about the upcoming rally, he let her know the Co-op would support her cause. Netser said the Co-op is providing refreshments, coffee and space outside of Inns North for the demonstration.

“I thought, that’s awesome she’s doing that,” said Woodford, who afterwards found out one of his own staff was helping to organize the event, adding to his desire to support the cause.

Leonie Sammurtok, one of the organizers of Saturday’s event, says that, “In the other two territories and the 10 provinces of this country, the average causes of death are accidents or natural causes.

“The main cause of death in Nunavut is suicide.”

This dates back to residential schools, she added, with the last residential school in the territory closing in 1997 in Rankin Inlet. Nunavummiut are resilient, but intergenerational trauma still lingers.

Sammurtok believes Inuit culture is an important part of the solution.

“Without knowing it, we all carry the Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit within ourselves,” she said. “That is what I love about our people. We are very respectful, welcoming to a lot of newcomers; we help people and families when needed, making sure the decisions we make will benefit everyone around us; we are eager to learn new things even if they are challenging; we are a community that’s more like family; we do our part to help others; we use the limited resources we have to build great things. Respecting the land, animals and environment is very important to Inuit.”

With the co-operation of everyone, Sammurtok believes the suicide crisis can be overcome. She encourages everyone to attend the mental health movement rally to honour the people lost to suicide and prevent the loss of any more souls.

“It is news that we should hear no more,” she said.

Beyond more permanent mental health staff, Netser would like the government to make it mandatory for workplaces and schools to have staff trained in mental health first aid or psychological first aid.

Sammurtok suggested more activities beyond sports are needed, like sewing, beading carving and hunting. Providing more activities and outlets for people so they don’t turn to drugs or alcohol could help address the root problems, she said.

The mental health movement was originally scheduled for last weekend but postponed due to weather. It is now scheduled for 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 28, in front of Turaarvik Inns North. Everyone is invited to attend, bring signs and help push for change in the territory.

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