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Health ᒥᔪᐱᒫᑎᓰᐧᐃᓐ

New psychosocial helpline launches in Eeyou Istchee

BY Patrick Quinn Apr 17, 2020

Adapting to the isolation and uncertainty that come with the physical distancing measures needed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is a struggle for many people. Some public health leaders are warning that mental illness could be the next wave of the pandemic. 

Since March 27, people in Eeyou Istchee have a valuable new resource to address this anxiety. The Cree Health Board’s new psychosocial helpline can now be called for emergency assistance at 1-833-632-HELP (4357).

“We understand everyone copes with these situations in many different ways and we want to make sure the helpline meets their needs,” said Juliana Matoush-Snowboy, the CHB’s Director of Organizational Quality and Cultural Safety. “This is an alternative for people who want to feel heard and not necessarily disclose their personal information.” 

Helpline callers receive a welcoming message in Cree and English while being connected to a psychosocial professional, who follows protocols and tools specifically developed for the current situation. While there is always someone available to receive calls from 9am to 5pm on weekdays, there remain two people on shift for emergency support outside of these times. 

Matoush-Snowboy told the Nation that callers seeking cultural support can be scheduled for one-on-one telephone conversations with traditional healers from their team. Helpline operators will also refer callers to other public health professionals as necessary to resolve particular clinical needs. 

The timing of this service couldn’t be better, but it’s actually an extension of a pilot project that has been underway in Mistissini over the past six months. Before launching the line, the CHB pychosocial workers in the Department of Professional Services and Quality Assurance worked for a month to adapt their integrated model approach to the current situation. 

“So far, the response from the community has been very positive,” said Matoush-Snowboy. “It really helps to have someone reassuring you when you have questions or anxiety. These past two weeks we have been receiving an increase in calls, not only from clients but also from frontline workers.”

Since precautionary measures were introduced in Eeyou Istchee, psychosocial workers in each community have connected clinic staff with public health communications updates, self-help tools, essential-service guidelines and other protocols for crisis intervention. 

“In the past six months we have organized two large gatherings with community workers, HROs [human resource officers], and social workers from each community,” Matoush-Snowboy explained. “During these gatherings, we have been approaching trauma from a variety of perspectives where we not only focus on their wellbeing but also their intervention strategies. Our main focus is building trust for people to communicate and share experiences so we can all understand our path to healing together.”

To address the complex types of intergenerational traumas encountered in Eeyou Istchee, Dennis Windego leads unique training programs with a Cree Focusing-Oriented Therapy perspective. Incorporating the core values of respect and non-interference, this approach allows clients total control of the pace and direction of their healing journey.

As isolation can exacerbate existing mental-health issues in many ways, it’s more important than ever to create an open space for supportive communication. The emotional fallout of social distancing may be creating opportunities to address these often-stigmatized issues.

“We know when we talk about mental health in the Cree Nation and probably everywhere, it’s heavily stigmatized already,” said Matoush-Snowboy. “It’s not a conversation that happens in the communities or in the families. Going through this challenge right now, this psychosocial helpline is one way we are trying to close that gap and have that discussion with people.”

Data on core mental-health issues gathered from helpline calls is collected weekly, while the most vulnerable members of the population are followed by their community’s local psychosocial COVID representative. They have regular meetings with directors to receive regional updates and share their local situation. 

During these challenging times, it’s especially important to focus on activities that improve one’s state of mind. Matoush-Snowboy recommends limiting exposure to media, talking to others and safely helping those who have been in isolation. 

“We would like to remind everyone across the territory of our collective resilience, to breathe, be grateful and promote healthy behaviours that can increase our mental health and immune system,” she said. “We are all together struggling through this pandemic. You are not alone. Contact the helpline – we are there for you!”

Although the helpline is a direct response to the current crisis, it will continue to support the diverse needs of community members and expand along with the region in the years to come. It joins a growing arsenal of psychosocial tools that mental-health professionals can use to assist clients.   

“Across Canada, we see mental-health workers using different methods of technology,” said Matoush-Snowboy. “We’ve been talking about digital intervention for quite some time now. We have a young population in Eeyou Istchee that’s very tech savvy. I think it’s very innovative, the way the team is thinking.”

People shouldn’t hesitate to call the helpline if they’re feeling anxious. For emergencies, they should continue to call emergency staff in their community. Experts suggest practicing gratitude and self-compassion, perceiving this situation as an opportunity to rest or to focus on personal wellbeing.

“I’m really grateful for all the communication and reassurance from leadership, especially at the Cree Health Board,” concluded Matoush-Snowboy. “Also, the frontline staff that are answering the calls 24-7 – they’re really awesome. From the Cree Nation, meegwetch from the bottom of our hearts!” 

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.