Cape Breton's Eskasoni First Nation in mental health crisis: chief

By The Canadian Press
January 17, 2019 - 9:45am

ESKASONI, N.S. — Nova Scotia's largest Mi'kmaq community is in the throes of a mental health crisis, with multiple suicides in recent weeks, the chief of the Eskasoni First Nation says.

Leroy Denny said Thursday the deaths have underscored the Cape Breton community's dire need for more health-care resources.

"All levels of government need to step up," he said, noting that more long-term funding is needed for culturally informed mental health, trauma and addictions services.

"We must really invest in this issue and deal with the mental health and suicide crisis happening in many Indigenous communities across Canada."

The situation is reminiscent of a crisis a decade ago, which saw multiple young people die from suicide as well as accidental drug- and alcohol-related deaths in the First Nation, he said.

"In 2009, we didn't have any services. At least now we're more prepared," Denny said. "But we continue to struggle and we need more funding."

He said current funding is inadequate to address the needs of Eskasoni, a community of about 4,500 people.

Denny said Indigenous Peoples who seek services off-reserve often experience racism and discrimination.

"We live on a reservation and from day one we've been dealing with issues of poverty, addictions and trauma that's passed down through generations," he said.

"We're trying to provide therapy and counselling services but it's really difficult to get funding."

Eskasoni health director Sharon Rudderham said the community has experienced multiple deaths, both expected and unexpected, intensifying its grief.

"The compounding effects and the re-traumatization that are impacting our community we believe require a more effective response to dealing with the situation," she told a press conference at the Eskasoni Health Centre. 

"We require more clinical positions to provide direct support and counselling to our community members because of the factors of racism and discrimination that they face when they go into town to access services," Rudderham said.

She said Eskasoni needs more long-term funding for a multitude of services, including its crisis hotline, clinical services and counselling.

According to Health Canada, suicide rates are five to seven times higher for First Nations youth than for non-Aboriginal youth.

William Olscamp, a spokesman for Indigenous Services Canada, issued a statement expressing condolences for the recent loss of life.

He said the department has responded to the community's demands by offering access to a mental health counsellor.

"Indigenous Services Canada regional officials have reached out to offer ... support to the community," he said, adding that the federal government is already providing the First Nation with nearly $1 million to support mental health programming for 2018-2019.

Olscamp said the funding is for mental health programs, which include youth suicide prevention, mental health counseling, cultural support providers and traditional healer services.

The funding is also used to support mental wellness services for residential school survivors and their families. As well, Olscamp drew attention to the Hope for Wellness Help Line, which provides 24-hour, culturally competent counselling for Indigenous Peoples.

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil issued a brief statement, saying the province is keen to offer help.

"My thoughts are with the community of Eskasoni at this very difficult time," he said. "I did speak with Chief Denny by telephone and offered the province's support. We will work with the chief and the community to determine how we can best provide assistance."

Statistics Canada has found the Aboriginal population in Canada has historically had a higher unemployment rate than the non-Aboriginal population. Employment and working conditions are considered key determinants of both physical and mental health, according to the National Collaborating Centre for Aboriginal Health.

Meanwhile, four out of every five Aboriginal reserves have median incomes that fall below the poverty line, according to income data from the 2016 census.

— By Brett Bundale in Halifax

The Canadian Press

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