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NWT mental illness rampant
GNWT promises awareness campaign

Katie May
Northern News Services
Published Monday, April 19, 2010

SOMBA K'E/YELLOWKNIFE - The NWT government spends more on drugs to treat mental illnesses than on any other medical condition, with the exception of diabetes.

Department of Health statistics shows mental illness is the third most common condition in the territory, after diabetes and asthma, and the government spends about $329,517 per year on health insurance claims for more than 900 types of covered drugs prescribed to treat conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression and anxiety.

Marlene Villebrun, a mental health/addictions specialist with the department in Yellowknife, said many more people don't want to consider the possibility they might be mentally ill.

"Certainly there's a lot of work that could be done in helping people recognize, for example, when they're depressed, realizing when they might have an anxiety disorder. There's a lot of education that could be done in that area, not just in the Northwest Territories but I would say across Canada," she said.

"There's kind of a stigma or a shame attached to it that people don't want to look at it," Villebrun added.

"I think that a lot could be done to try to de-stigmatize it and instead focus on mental wellness."

In its "Foundation for Change" report released in November, the department committed to increasing awareness of mental health by developing a social media campaign and a youth campaign that would focus on suicide prevention, addictions and self-esteem.

Villebrun said the social media project won't get started until sometime late this year.

Until then, NWT residents have access to mental health programs through community counsellors at the eight Health and Social Services authorities across the territory and through local community wellness workers.

In many isolated communities, a wellness worker is not available full-time, and in that case one would travel for scheduled visits from a regional centre, Villebrun said, though she added that "currently it is pretty much accessible to NWT residents and certainly it's always something that we're looking to build on."

Some communities, including Tuktoyaktuk and Fort McPherson in the Beaufort Delta region, are taking mental wellness into their own hands and working with local aboriginal organizations to improve access to such services for their residents.

Each with $100,000 from the Department of Health and Social Services, the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation in Tuk and the Gwich'in Tribal Council in Fort McPherson, are planning pilot projects that focus on addictions treatment and after care.

Villebrun said working with communities on mental health issues is one of the major goals set out in the Foundation for Change report.

"We'd like to see the department working with communities so that wellness goals are identified. What is it that the communities want to work on? How can the government support those initiatives?" she said.

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