Wood Buffalo needs consistent counsellors for Indigenous populations, researcher says

Indigenous communities in the Wood Buffalo region need full-time mental health support, instead of fly-in, fly-out counsellors, according to research out of the University of Alberta. 

Stephanie Montesanti, an assistant professor in the University of Alberta’s school of public health, started researching the state of mental health care for Indigenous people in Wood Buffalo after the 2016 fire that forced Fort McMurray to evacuate. 

She wanted to see what impact the fire had on Indigenous people’s mental health. 

“We’re learning that the wildfire has exacerbated a number of mental health issues and concerns in the communities, but the wildfire wasn’t the sole cause of what we’re seeing in the communities.”

Montesanti said they’ve seen depression, anxiety, violence and substance abuse. 

These findings were presented at a forum in Fort McMurray Tuesday. Montesanti invited about 40 health care professionals, elders and community leaders to talk about the gaps in mental health support for Indigenous people across the region. 

The research, funded by Canadian Institutes for Health Research and Indigenous Healthy Life Trajectories Initiative, aims to identify gaps in mental health care and find solutions. 

It was done in partnership with the McMurray Métis. 

Stephanie Montesanti presented her research to a group of about 40 elders, health care professionals and community leaders. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

“Some of the issues and concerns are around inconsistency of care. Having a dedicated health care professional or mental health care full time within the community does not exist,” said Montesanti. 

Instead, counsellors will visit the communities on a fly-in, fly-out basis. 

You’ve got to have somebody that’s trained, that knows communities, that knows Aboriginal ways.– Yvonne McCallum

Yvonne McCallum, a Métis elder and leader at the Conklin Resource Development Advisory Committee, said she’s seen a counsellor show up in town a few times, then a new counsellor rotates through.

“Just when [counsellors] start getting through to them, there’s somebody else being sent in.”

McCallum said good services are being brought into the community, but they aren’t being delivered as effectively as possible. 

Yvonne McCallum says she has gone to counsellors in Conklin, but staff is always changing, making it difficult to connect and open up. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

She’d also like to see mental health support workers trained to work with Indigenous people. “You’ve got to have somebody that’s trained, that knows communities, that knows Aboriginal ways.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Bryan Fayant, disaster recovery co-ordinator for the McMurray Métis. 

“The wildfire has had an effect and was one of the traumas, but if you listen to people talk, there have been numerous traumas,” said Fayant. 

He said Indigenous people face the compounded trauma of loss of land, colonialism, residential schools, the Sixties Scoop and other “devastations” specific to Indigenous people. 

“[The fire] didn’t change anything, it just heightened it if anything.”

Bryan Fayant, with the McMurray Metis, says counsellors need a better understanding of the trauma Indigenous people have faced. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

“That’s why communities are dysfunctional. They’re carrying all these dysfunctions, all the hurt and pain. Who’s picking up the pieces?”

He said he was encouraged by the number of people who went to the forum. “The intention is there… Now we need to have the systems in place to make it work.”

Right now “the health care system, the mental health systems, all other care giving systems aren’t designed or geared to work with First Nations or Métis people.”

He said many social workers and counsellors walking into communities don’t understand the depth of trauma Indigenous people have faced. 

Blending approaches to health care

The forum broke into groups to talk about possible solutions to fill the gaps in mental health care. 

Some people suggested having counsellors meet elders at their homes for tea, or go berry-picking with them, with the intent to meld Indigenous culture and western health care. 

Montesanti said she was strategic when choosing the forum’s guests. She invited “champions” who could take the information she shared and bring it back to their community or organization and incite change.

She will include the suggestions and comments from forum participants in a final report, which will be given to policy-makers and key leaders in the health industry. 

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