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Mental health phone-in service rolls out next week

Health and Social Services Minister Diane Thom announces the program at Legislative Assembly on Wednesday morning. Nick Pearce/NNSL photo

The Government of the Northwest Territories is touting a new phone-in mental health service to be rolled-out next Monday.

Announced on Wednesday (Jan. 15) at the legislative assembly, the national non-profit Strongest Families will provide distance counselling and support to NWT residents. Bell Let’s Talk and Northwestel are co-funding the project with the GNWT, to the tune of $500,000 spread over five years.

Health and Social Services Minister Diane Thom announces the program at Legislative Assembly on Wednesday morning.
Nick Pearce/NNSL photo

Health and Social Services Minister Diane Thom said the benefits of the program include flexible scheduling and the lack of a wait-list. It can be as long as eight months to see a counsellor in person in the Northwest Territories.

“Here’s an opportunity for this to be online. It’s at the family’s pace, and at their own time,” she told reporters after the announcement. 

Strongest Families will be available through referral from health and social services providers, including social workers, nurses and doctors. When the program rolls out on Jan. 20, residents can access it through their community counselors.

Those providers are currently being trained, starting with the community counselling program, which is located in 19 communities and includes fly-in and phone options for remaining locations.

The NWT Help Line is also available, in addition to specialized care like from doctors and nurses, and psychiatric assessments offered in health centres.

“First and foremost it provides options for people,” Sara Chorostkowski, manager mental wellness and addiction recovery division said. She added that feedback from residents has indicated “there’s no one size fits all.”

“There might be people out there that (think) they don’t need to see councillor, or they don’t have time in their work and life schedule to make an appointment (to) go see a councillor,” she said.

All residents can access the service, regardless of the individual circumstances in their community, she said. “They can do it in the evening. They can do it during the day if they work nights. They can do it after their kid is bed at night,” she said.

After five years

When asked what happens after funding ends five years from now, Chorostkowski said the territorial government will observe the program as it rolls out. 

“At this point, we’re launching and we’re going to see how it goes. We’re going to monitor this as time goes on,” she said.

Asked if there were different outcomes between in-person and distance care, she added either option isn’t “necessarily different or better.”

“I think it’s about matching the service to what the person wants,” she said, saying more options will allow residents to shape the services currently being offered.

Strongest Families President and CEO of Strongest Families Patricia Lingley-Pottie, said the difference between distance and in-person care depends on the individual. By accessing the service at home, she said it eases the stigma around accessing mental health services.

She added upwards of 90 per cent of participants complete programs with the service.

However, as a largely education program, it’s not an emergency service. 

Lingley-Pottie said more severe cases are rare for the program because it tends to deal with mild and moderate situations. If something does come up, the caller would be connected with relevant emergency services, she said.

As a national service, she said her staff were trained to take into account “cultural sensitivities” while taking calls, which typically last between 45 to 50 minutes.

Health Minister Thom said was optimistic about the program, adding that the Department will keep an eye on its output.

“This is something we will assess each year,” Thom said. “I’m hoping for positive outcomes.”