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Health

What will make recovering from addictions easier in the NWT?


A survey of more than 400 people suggests more on-the-land and community-based addictions treatment should be made available, the territorial government says.

From February to April this year, the territory asked 439 people “with lived experience of seeking addictions recovery services” how services available in the territory could be improved.

The survey comes as the territory’s residents continue to debate whether a treatment facility based in the Northwest Territories – which has not existed for almost a decade – would help.

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One survey respondent quoted in the GNWT’s report says “it is absolutely astonishing that we do not have this service for our people,” but successive NWT health ministers have said treatment centres in the territory don’t work and improving the care available back home after treatment is the key.

The report, published on Tuesday, said respondents provided “conflicting feedback” on the need for a territorial treatment centre.

The GNWT says those people who did want an NWT-based facility cited reasons like “a need for families to be able to attend or participate together,” and the need to reflect the culture of those who attend.

But the territorial government said it would be impossible to build a single treatment facility in the NWT that checked those boxes for all residents, given the vast distances and many peoples involved.

“One single NWT treatment centre would not address this need for all NWT residents,” the report states. “Based on responses to this survey, it appears that the needs of residents of the Northwest Territories may be most effectively met by continuing to expand on the land and community-based treatment opportunities, and looking to existing resources in the regions to develop regional treatment options that will better meet the needs of local populations.”

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Health minister Julie Green said a wellness and recovery centre expected to open in Yellowknife in 2024 “will certainly help with addictions recovery and mental wellness, but it will not be a residential treatment centre of the kind that we contract in the south.”

Barriers to access

The territory’s director of mental health and addictions recovery, Sara Chorostkowski, said the survey’s findings were not surprising but “validating.” 

“The results really showed me the breadth of options that we need,” Chorostkowski said, “and also the real focus on the informal supports, and on the community-based, and relationship, and family supports – and how those are really key.”

The majority of respondents were Indigenous, more than two-thirds were women, and the 35-to-49 age group was the most represented. 

A key finding was the need to expand on the land and community-based treatment opportunities, in addition to “looking to existing resources in the regions to develop regional treatment options that will better meet the needs of local populations.”

Green said: “The number-one service that people wanted and couldn’t access was land-based healing.”

The report added that “while fewer respondents have been able to access land-based healing programs, most respondents who have attended these programs reported satisfaction in all areas.”

One respondent was quoted as saying: “Land-based healing programs as well as traditional ceremonies with Elders worked best for me, and I believe they will be more successful for the Indigenous population.”

The GNWT currently has an annual fund of around $1.8 million for land-based healing, according to Chorostkowski. 

Asked whether more land-based programming was in the works, Green said she was “not aware that there is a plan right now to enhance the land-based healing.”

Chorostkowski said the focus instead is on maximizing the use of existing funds, streamlining and simplifying access, and working to connect recipients “so they can share ideas, and share lessons learned, and build upon the successes that they have.”

Forty-three percent of respondents said the primary barrier to accessing services was a lack of availability in their community. 

“That points to a need to enhance community-based programs and services,” said Green.

“We’re also aware the results show that even if a service was available, in some cases people didn’t know they were available – and so we have a communications challenge in making sure people are aware of all the services that are available to them.”

Providing more aftercare remains important, too, the minister said.

“We have heard consistently from people coming back from treatment,” said Green, “that if they go back into the same living situation they left before treatment – which is often sleeping in shelters, sleeping on couches, sleeping in porches, and other marginal kinds of accommodations not meant for long- term occupation – they find, without a home to call their own, it’s very difficult to maintain their sobriety.

“This is where the transitional housing units come in.”

Chorostkowski said such units are still in the planning phase but the territory is “on track to have some meaningful things in place” by 2023. 

“I want to give a shout-out to the people who did take the time to complete the survey and thank them for sharing their experiences,” said Chorostkowski, “and just to remind anybody that is struggling, or has a loved one who’s struggling, that supports are available.”

A list of mental wellness and addictions recovery services can be found on the GNWT’s website

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