‘Clearly inadequate’: Nunavut child advocate reports on mental health

Nunavut’s Representative for Children and Youth says mental health services available to the territory’s young people are not meeting their needs.

Sherry McNeil-Mulak, who led an exhaustive review of Nunavut’s mental health regime for youth, said the results were similar across the board.

“While there are many positive initiatives, and dedicated individuals, working to provide mental health services to young people across the territory, the current system is clearly inadequate, and is failing to meet the needs of Nunavut’s children and youth,” McNeil-Mulak said, having interviewed 475 individuals, including 225 young people.

According to the report, those responsible for mental health know more needs to be done.

Eighty-two per cent of Government of Nunavut service providers told the McNeil-Mulak’s office that mental health services are not adequate, while 72 per cent said the quality of existing services isn’t enough.

Members of the public were even harder on the territorial government, with 91 per cent saying there isn’t enough mental health programming for youth, and 83 per cent saying that what exists is of poor quality.

There are 15 recommendations contained within the report, which will be presented to the Nunavut Legislative Assembly later this year.

“Each of the recommendations in the report is aimed at improving the unacceptable state of mental health services for children and youth in Nunavut,” McNeil-Mulak explained.

Among McNeil-Mulak’s recommendations is that the territory begin to follow a previously accepted 2015 recommendation from the Coroner’s office to provide a formal follow-up protocol after suicide attempts, including contacting family.

“We are aware that much of what we heard during our review has been said before, and that some of the recommendations that we have made, have been made before,” she said. “However, until children and youth in Nunavut are able to access the mental health services that they need, that they have a right to, in their own territory, we will continue to urge the Government of Nunavut to implement these recommendations.”

Sherry McNeil-Mulak (middle) says more than 200 youth in Nunavut were interviewed for the report. Kent Driscoll/APTN.

Recommendations are broken down into five categories: mental health in schools, mental health services, mental health workforce, and awareness and recreational activities.

The lack of services plays a huge role in Nunavut’s staggering suicide rate.

Between Nunavut’s founding in April 1999 and the end of 2017, 545 Inuit died by suicide, 62 per cent of whom were under the age of 25.

The report points out that mental health in Nunavut’s youth is linked to a variety of factors, each one weighing down on the young person. Seventy per cent of Inuit homes are food insecure, eight times the national average.

Thirty-nine per cent of Inuit in Nunavut live in overcrowded homes. In 2017 and 2018, 519 people in Nunavut were admitted to family violence shelters; 268 of those were children.

Nunavut’s sexual assault rate is nine times the national average.

A large part of the review’s efforts were spent talking to actual Nunavut youth.

“A key priority for our office when conducting this review was to elevate the voices of young people,” McNeil-Mulaq explained. “Throughout our review, young people from across this territory offered their thoughts and ideas on how to improve mental health services to better meet their needs, and we listened.”

The interviews with youth are the most telling part of the report. Currently, there are no clinical mental health services in any of Nunavut’s schools, and the students told the Advocate’s Office that they are desperately needed.

When asked what would improve mental health services, one youth responded: “Having a counsellor other than just our guidance counsellor in the school.”

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is used as an example throughout the report. Signed by 150 countries in 1990, it contains 54 articles that outline basic human rights for children.

Of those 54, the Child Advocate’s office says Nunavut is failing on 16 of the 54.


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