Tenting and the ‘snowflake mannequin’: How Nunavik teams are rethinking psychological well being

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Two Kuujjuaq-based organizations are trying to provide better mental health care in Nunavik through community outreach and programs.

The Isuarsivik Regional Recovery Center is expanding its activities to better combat addiction, while the Qajaq Network works to end the stigma that traditionally surrounds the problem of men’s mental health.

The suicide rate in Nunavik is dramatically high — 177.1 cases per 100,000 people between 2017 and 2019, according to data from Quebec’s National Institute of Public Health.

The average for the rest of Quebec was 13.1 per 100,000.

Addiction and substance abuse are also factors. A 2017 Inuit Health Survey in Nunavik found residents were drinking more alcohol than was reported in 2004.

Isuarsivik interim chief executive Qemal Cheema said mental health services must be continuous. Otherwise, he said, people will relapse.

“It’s one thing to come to Kuujjuaq and then fly back to Salluit or Puvirnituq and have nothing,” Cheema said.

Isuarsivik adapts to this challenge by using what Cheema calls the snowflake model, which focuses on finding workers in each of Nunavik’s communities so they can continue to provide care.

They’re also going ashore more and engaging in traditional activities like hunting, berry picking and honing their navigational skills, said George Kauki, head of on-the-land programming at Isuarsivik.

Going to the countryside allows people to escape difficult realities they might face in the city, he said, adding that he has done so himself.

“It’s helped me so much through my dark periods in life,” Kauki said.

The Qajaq Men’s Network also uses land-based activities to help people in Nunavik deal with mental health issues.

Junior May, the organization’s director and life coach, said Qajaq focuses on men’s mental health because men often face challenges when opening up on the topic.

“It’s her biggest obstacle,” May said.

“Not just Inuit men, all men.”

Finding an apartment is also a hurdle. In the north, May said, a man in a difficult life situation cannot simply move somewhere else.

Nunavik needs 893 more public housing units to meet demand, according to a 2021 report by the Kativik Municipal Housing Bureau.

“You could find a small apartment in Montreal, although it’s probably not the best,” May said.

“But you can’t do that in the north.”

There was benefit in getting men with no camping experience to become skilled hunters and fishermen, May said, describing instances where those who went through the program came back to tell him how rewarding the experience was.

“It’s a big deal for me,” May said.

But Qajaq also faces challenges of its own.

Obtaining funding can be difficult as there is strong competition for funding from different levels of government and regional organizations.

May said he wishes he could have staff in every community but only has a budget for three.

Despite the challenges of providing mental health care in Nunavik, May said there is value in teaching Inuit men to address their own mental health by learning traditional activities.

“It’s really rewarding,” he said.