Getting access to mental health services in southwestern Ontario

Colin Graf - Anishinabek News

Getting access to mental health services in southwestern Ontario

By Colin Graf
Nov. 30, 2017

SARNIA –  Young people from three First Nations in southwestern Ontario are getting some extra help in getting access to mental health services.  The St. Clair Child & Youth centre in Lambton County  has hired Laurie Nahmabin-Goulais as the group’s first Indigenous liaison worker to assist  families and youth seeking help with a wide range of problems, from anxiety to addictions, self-harm, or even suicidal thoughts, says Teri Thomas-Vanos, director of clinical services with the centre.

Nahmabin-Goulais says there are a number of ways she wants to help youth and those who serve them, such as integrating indigenous-based knowledge with mainstream approaches to therapy, “finding balance” between the two.

One barrier can be a feeling of dislocation that indigenous youth can feel in a place where the people and the appearance don’t necessarily reflect their culture. Goulais says paying attention to the 7 Grandfather Teachings as well as regular western therapeutic approaches can help.  She “would love” to have youth circles in the communities where young people can talk about their challenges together, not just in one-on-one counselling.  “Listening and learning, sharing …I find in my own educational background I learned better in this style,” she tells Anishinabek News.

Sometimes it’s “subtle things” that help create an environment that’s supportive to First Nations, such as featuring indigenous art in their building, according to Thomas-Vanos.

“The St. Clair Centre wants to change the way the way it works with First Nations youth and communities to make the agency more receptive and welcoming,” says director of operations Craig Mackenzie.  “We want to be open to the strengths and capacities within indigenous families and traditional practices and teachings, utilizing resources from the communities, elders, and traditional teachings, not just the textbook answer.”

“We know our indigenous communities have a higher population of youth at-risk [for mental health problems].  We know they are under-represented in general in the service numbers we get, and they are very much over-represented in the justice system. Mackenzie says.   “We need to make it [the Centre] less institutional.”

Nahmabin-Goulais says she also wants to increase knowledge and awareness of First Nations practises among staff and honour traditional teachings within the St. Clair Centre.  “What if you put smudge bowls down the hall there [by the salt lamps]?” she suggests to Mackenzie and Thomas-Vanos during the interview.

The liasion worker also plans to  help educate the mental health professionals on the special challenges faced by First Nations’ youth. Explaining to staff the impact of the trauma from 7 generations of residential schooling is very important, she says.   Victims of intergenerational trauma “are so far into it, they don’t always see it in themselves,” she explains.

Helping First Nations youth may be “a bit more complex” than working with some other groups, says Sara Plain, director of the Aamjiwnaang Health Centre, due to  the twin legacies of historical colonization and residential schooling.  Many First Nations’ people have an inherited fear of institutions and “clinical-type settings”, due to the history of colonization.

Staff at the Centre have been very open and receptive to new ways of doing things, says Nahmabin-Goulais.

She will also help make connections  with three First Nations in the Sarnia-Lambton area, Aamjiwnaang, Kettle & Stony Point, and Bkejwanong (Walpole Island), according to  Craig Mackenzie,   “We haven’t done a great job.  We have to work more with our partners in finding out how we can make our services available.”

The centre is trying to move services closer to where they are needed for the Kettle and Stony Point First Nation and for Bkejwanong (Walpole Island First Nation), both of which are more than a half hour drive from the centre. “The biggest and most exciting site” for St. Clair is  at Bkejwanong where 2 staff members form the agency work alongside staff from the local health centre to deliver therapy sessions once a month, says Thomas-Vanos.

After “several successful years of utilization,” Kettle Point is re-evaluating their service, focussing on traditional practices and the St. Clair organization is trying to “see how we fit in,” she explains.   There is a “mutual desire” to get a mental health worker there every week.

Having Nahmabin-Goulais on board will help “bridge the connection” between the services being offered and  Aamjiwnaang, along Sarnia’s southern edge, says Sara Plain, director of the First Nation’s Health Centre.  Workers from St. Clair are just “getting our legs under us” at Aamjiwnaang, said Thomas-Vanos.

“To promote use of mental health services, the agency first has to work on building relationships with chiefs and councils and recognizing each First Nation’s unique history, needs, traditions, and practices, and work within their way of doing things.”

Nahmabin-Goulais, an Aamjiwnaang resident, hopes to speak with Chiefs and Councils starting in January about creating partnerships with the St. Clair centre.  “When you have their backing it makes it much easier to offer your service.”

The decision to hire an indigenous liasion worker came out of meetings between the St. Clair centre and First Nation partners.  Indigenous representatives at the meetings expressed concerns that not enough families with mental health needs from their communities were being supported, Thomas-Vanos says.

Nahmabin-Goulais has completed two college programs over the last three years –Indigenous Social Service Worker through First Nation Technical Institute, and the Mental Health and Addictions Worker Program, again through FNTI in collaboration with Canadore College. She hopes to complete a Bachelors in Social Work as well.