Breaking down mental health barriers in the Yukon
In this file photo the moon rises over mountains along the Alaska Highway heading west to Whitehorse in the Yukon Sunday March 4, 2007. (Chuck Stoody / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
It is a seven-hour drive from Whitehorse to Dawson -- a journey that spans 532 kilometres.
The largest pit stop found among the vast wilderness is the tiny village of Carmacks, home to about 500 people.
In the Yukon, vast distances are a fact of a life.
And that’s why a new initiative is focusing on bridging that barrier, by providing support over the phone for people dealing with a variety of mental-health issues across the territory.
“It can be pretty isolating in the Yukon ... all the communities are quite far apart from one another, and if you're living in a community that is four or five hours away, that can be quite isolating,” said Haley Hechtman, the director of the Yukon Support and Distress Line.
The program opened its lines at the end of November, with volunteers operating the phones between 7 p.m. and 3 a.m., seven days a week. It has been fueled by donations from the Bell Let’s Talk Community Fund, Northwestel Inc. and the Government of Yukon and Social Services.
With 28 volunteers manning the phones, Hechtman believes they can lend an ear to people who are looking to talk through their problems. The number is 1-844-533-3030.
“(It is about) getting them a space to be able to get some support to feel like they are being heard and being listened to so that … hopefully we can prevent crises from happening,” she said in a phone interview from her office in Whitehorse.
In recent years, the territory has struggled to prevent hospitalizations for self-injury. According to a 2013 report from the Canadian Institute for Health Information, Yukon had the third-highest rate of self-injury hospitalizations in Canada between 2011 and 2012.
Only Nunavut, at a rate of 383 per 100,000 residents, and the Northwest Territories at 210, ranked higher. The Canadian average was 67 per 100,000 people.
“We do really have a high population of mental health, addictions and quite a few suicides happen in the Yukon community,” said Hechtman.
She added that the history of residential schools has left a lasting trauma in a territory where 25 per cent of its residents are aboriginal.
Gaps in Services
When development on the distress line project began in December 2013, Hechtman says there were a lot of service gaps in the Yukon.
“There's not a lot of services up here, we’re a small population,” she said, referring to the territory's population density of 0.1 persons per square kilometre, which is dwarfed by Canada’s national average of 3.7.
“The government does its best to offer mental health services and addiction support, but there are a lot of communities that don't have constant access to those support systems.”
In particular, she says there was very little available in terms of after-hours support, or even a general phone line, for people in distress.
This was something Hechtman said was especially concerning because people of Yukon rely heavily on government services, which generally operate between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.
“It is a very 9-to-5 kind of place, in the Yukon in general most of the services are governments services, so they’re run during the day and people don’t have a lot of access during the evenings,” she said.
People who had nowhere to turn, Hechtman said, were sometimes forced to look to the RCMP for help.
“They got a lot of calls from people who are in distress, or are looking for support, and that really isn't their jurisdiction,” she said.
Hechtman believes that her volunteers can take over many of these calls. Her staff started training in October, with workshops in active listening, applied suicide prevention skills and other community resources.
Mental Health Stigma
Now, Hechtman says, the difficulty is getting people to entrust her volunteers to provide judgment-free help and to overcome the stigma of mental health issues, Hechtman said.
“Theres still a of stigma (about) sharing those experiences, sharing those feelings you're having around depression or anxiety and who to talk to and who can you comfortably provide that information too,” she said.
And that stigma can be especially difficult to shake off, according to Hechtman, in some of the Yukon’s smaller communities.
“Maybe there are 200, 300 people -- there isn’t a lot of confidentiality and anonymity when you know all of your neighbours, when the nurse is your next door neighbour and the RCMP that lives there is someone you're familiar with,” she said.
One of the volunteers, 29-year-old Alexander Mark Weber, says helplines such as the Yukon Distress and Support Line can offer the confidentiality and assistance people are looking for.
“This is at least somewhere those people can turn to feel support and not feel like they are being judged.”
Weber has previously volunteered at two other helplines and has seen friends suffer through mental illness -- including one who died by suicide. He says it is important to have initiatives like the Yukon Distress Line because mental illness is a lot more common than people think.
“If you have flu or something physical then you go and get help for it, but all of a sudden when someone has a mental health issue we don't get help for it, he said.”
“I think we see other people in society and we think, ‘Oh, everyone else is doing fine if I have a mental health problem then what's wrong with me … but often people are also keeping it a secret and so what ends up happening is we all keep it inside, it becomes stigmatized and people don't seek treatment.”
While the support line is in its early stages and has received around 20 calls, it only takes one to make a difference.
Among those callers was a person who was at a “high-risk” of suicide. Hechtman said a volunteer managed to help.
“By the end of the call they had really de-escalated because they just needed someone to talk to and (they) really thanked the volunteer, letting them know it made a really big difference just to talk and have someone listen,” she said.