The NWT’s health minister said on Thursday the territory is facing a mental health crisis, a reversal of her position since taking on the role two years ago.
Julie Green had until recently maintained that while mental health in the NWT was a significant and complex issue, warranting a large investment, she did not consider it a crisis.
However, as MLAs reconvened at the legislature for their fall sitting on Thursday, Green dispensed with that approach.
“While I do not use the following term lightly, I believe we are experiencing a mental health crisis in the Northwest Territories,” the minister told colleagues in prepared remarks.
“The number of suicides we have seen so far this year, along with increased mental health hospitalizations, tells us that more attention and energy is needed to address this crisis.”
The minister’s statement came a week after the NWT’s chief coroner released data showing the number of suicides recorded in the territory to date this year stands at 18, up from 11 during the whole of 2021.
Coroner Garth Eggenberger said he had published this year’s data early because he felt the startling statistic required a response from governments, communities and families.
The remainder of this report addresses mental health and suicide. The NWT Help Line is available at any time of day or night on 1-800-661-0844. Kids Help Phone is also available around the clock at 1-800-668-6868 or you can use live chat or text options instead of calling. If you’re trying to help someone who is talking about suicide, the GNWT has a list of resources.
Since the start of last year, Green has faced criticism for her insistence that the territory’s mental health concerns should not be termed a crisis.
In a particularly bitter exchange at the legislature in February 2021, Green said she did not agree with Great Slave MLA Katrina Nokleby’s use of the word “crisis” in that context. Green had replaced Nokleby in cabinet, albeit with a different portfolio, after Nokleby was voted out of cabinet by MLAs in 2020. The two have, at best, an adversarial relationship.
“She has been soliciting horror stories on Facebook and apparently has been very gratified with that,” Green said of Nokleby at the time, referring to a Facebook post in which Nokleby urged people “falling through the cracks in our mental health system” to reach out to her.
Responding to Green that day, Nokleby said: “I think it’s disgusting that the minister would characterize my wanting to advocate for my constituents and residents of this territory as collecting horror stories that I find gratifying. I find it disgusting.”
In September last year, asked if a crisis was taking place, Green said the issue was “not about rhetoric” but instead about “whether we have supports in place for people who need them.”
Green continued to avoid the phrase when questioned again by Nokleby in February this year, saying mental health challenges had increased during the pandemic but adding she believed the territory’s services were adequate.
Even last week, in an interview with Cabin Radio, the health minister questioned the point of using the term “mental health crisis.”
Asked if she regretted putting up a fight over that terminology, Green said: “I still think that the word is so overused. I’m not clear what it is that they have invested in it. Like, what would calling it a crisis do? That’s the part that I’ve never been able to get a satisfactory answer to.
“So we have a housing crisis. We have a child and family services crisis, we have a health staffing crisis. What has that done for us, to describe all of those things as a crisis?”
A week later, that view had shifted.
“Thousands of NWT residents are currently struggling with their mental health and – while the GNWT is offering more mental health support services than ever before – we know that, too often, people in need of that support are not seeking it out,” Green told the legislature on Thursday.
“We need to step up our effort to reach people. We must respond to this crisis with the focus it demands.”
Minister suggests new approach
Lesa Semmler, the Inuvik Twin Lakes MLA and a nurse before entering territorial politics, raised the coroner’s suicide statistics during Thursday’s proceedings.
Semmler read out a statement she had initially made a month before the pandemic’s onset, acknowledging the difficulty people can face in accessing help. She added that since February 2020, the situation – in part driven by Covid-19 – “has only gotten worse.”
Urging anyone affected to talk to somebody and remember they are loved and important, Semmler asked Green how her department was trying to reach more men and younger adults who may be vulnerable.
Green pointed to the likes of My Voice, My Choice, a campaign aimed at teenagers that involves the distribution of free mental wellness boxes (feedback about that campaign is currently being sought by the GNWT). She also highlighted the role of child and youth care counsellors, introduced to NWT communities in recent years.
But Semmler said those counsellors, while valuable, could be overwhelmed in times of community crisis when multiple students needed immediate access to help.
Green said a bigger government response, beyond her own department’s resources, was required.
“We have turned a corner into labelling this issue a crisis because it will draw extra focus and attention to the issues,” the health minister said in response to Semmler, explaining her shift in stance.
“To that end, I have engaged my cabinet colleagues to see if we can establish a whole-of-government approach.”
Green said that might involve training for staff in schools and extra recreational opportunities. She also urged communities to sign up for an addictions and aftercare fund that could allow them to hire Indigenous counsellors.
‘I have little faith’
Nokleby, who has repeatedly pressed Green regarding the term “mental health crisis,” told Cabin Radio on Thursday she was “glad that the minister has finally acknowledged what I, and several others, have been saying for years.”
“It was disappointing that she had to caveat it as a method or ploy to get more attention – i.e. money – from the feds,” Nokleby wrote in an email. “If that was the case, why didn’t she do so earlier? Use all the tools at her disposal?”
More broadly, the Great Slave MLA said she took issue with Green’s suggestion that some residents are not making use of available resources.
“To put it back on people for ‘not accessing the supports’ is like telling assault survivors that nothing can be done because no one reports. It’s victim blaming and I’m disappointed that the minister has stooped to this,” Nokleby wrote.
“It is clear: until we have culturally appropriate supports and treatment centre(s) in the territory, we will not hope to address this problem.
“The recent, early release of the coroner’s report has highlighted how badly we are failing people in the territory and I have little faith that we are going to see any significant changes in the life of the assembly with this cabinet.”