The federal government is pledging $82.5-million to improve access and address growing demand for mental-health services in Indigenous communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But the manner in which the money will be spent has a Thompson Rivers University professor warning it may not achieve what it aims to do.
This announcement comes on the heels of a surge in First Nations overdose deaths during the past several months.
The funding is intended to help First Nations partners and communities adapt mental-wellness services amid the pandemic, such as expanding access to culturally appropriate services, adapting mental-health services — such as virtual counselling — to meet increased demand and working to develop innovative strategies to address substance use and to improve access to treatment services.
Access to many mental-health services within Indigenous communities have been disrupted due to the pandemic, while some services have shifted to virtual and telehealth treatment options, creating obstacles for those living in remote communities that have limited connectivity.
Meanwhile, demand for services has surged. In the first four months of this year, the Hope for Wellness Help Line, which provides telephone and online support for First Nations, Inuit and Métis in a number of Indigenous languages, received more than 10,000 calls and chats from people seeking crisis intervention services. This represents a 178 per cent increase in demand compared to the same time period in 2019.
But Dr. Rod McCormick fears the dollars may wind up spread too thin to have enough impact.
“However they divvy it up, they’re talking about 650 communities — over 600 First Nations and then Metis and Inuit communities,” he said. “Split that way, there’s a little over $100,000 each. That might buy you a councillor for one year, if you’re lucky.”
McCormick, an expert on Indigenous mental health, is director of All My Relations at TRU, a research network advancing Indigenous community wellness by bringing together regional, national and international Indigenous researchers to work in partnership with Indigenous communities to build community wellness.
He criticized past attempts at providing mental-health resources as being time limited and offering no long-term solutions.
“There’s a crisis in a community and counsellors would get sent in for six weeks,” McCormick said.
“What happens at the end of the six weeks? What happens when the $82 million is gone? It’s not thinking ahead.”
McCormick is calling for a solution focused on prevention, rather than treatment, and pointed to something Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc os looking to implement — a mental-health navigator.
“I think that’s a great idea, to have people trained that are from the community, that are trained to help people navigate the mental-health system and also to provide preventative services,” he said.
Ultimately, McCormick said, he is happy to see that government recognizes the need for funding, but hopes in the future it might be applied differently.
“It’s a shame that it’s crisis-oriented dollars and there isn’t a plan, from what I can see, for the long term in terms of prevention,” he said.
Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller acknowledged that a disparity exists between mental-wellness support available to Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada and called the situation unacceptable.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the situation,” Miller said.
Funding will be allocated to First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities based on discussions among national and regional partnership tables or regional governing leaders.
— with files from Canadian Press