Wednesday, September 17, 2014
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Program to target mental health gap

Native youth will benefit

By Jason Warick, The Starphoenix

Federal cutbacks have left more than three-quarters of First Nations youth without proper mental health care, but a new, multimillion-dollar program may change that.

"There's been a depletion of resources in mental health. It's all been dismantled. We have nothing left," said University of Saskatchewan medical anthropologist Carolyn Tait.

She's placed her hopes in Transformational Research in Adolescent Mental Health, a $25-million project financed by a private foundation and a national research body.

Roughly $1.2 million of that will be spent in Saskatchewan over the next five years in an attempt to transform the mental health system for remote First Nations youth.

"It's very ambitious," Tait said.

Tait is a member of a unique partnership between the U of S College of Medicine and the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN). Their work will contribute to the Montrealbased team overseeing the work across Canada.

Suicide, drug addiction, poverty, poor housing, stress and many other issues affect mental health. Adolescents living in remote First Nations communities are particularly vulnerable, she said. They're also the least likely to have access to mental health services, she said.

Tait said the front-line workers, the families and the towns and reserves have been doing a spectacular job in spite of the lack of funding for services and research.

She and the teams will work with the Sturgeon Lake First Nation and others over the next six months to come up with a plan. Over the next five years, the team will take guidance from the youth, their families and those "on the ground," Tait said.

"That is what's unique. They will tell us what's needed," Tait said.

The goal is to create a seamless, effective system for prevention, treatment and research.

In 1996, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples recommended establishment of an aboriginal healing foundation for residential school survivors, a national aboriginal health organization and other measures. These were created and provided cuttingedge services and research, Tait said. Over the past couple of years, the federal government stopped funding these programs and left a gaping hole, she said.

"It has left us scrambling," she said.

Tait said the new program could have other benefits. If successful, it could further cement the U of S College of Medicine as a centre of expertise for First Nations mental health.

FSIN vice-chief Kimberly Jonathan said the program comes at a critical time for First Nations youth.

"First Nations youth struggle with the highest disparities in health and social determinants and we see this in their cries for help that lead to higher drug and alcohol use, higher encounters with the justice system and, most tragically, in higher youth suicide rates. Don't all youth in Canada deserve better?" Jonathan said in a written statement.

Tait hopes all levels of government will join the push to improve mental health. "Come on. Let's all get involved. We need the whole range of expertise here," she said.

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