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Mental health, public health a unique challenge in the north

By Shayla Bradley

In the north the connection between public heath and mental health looks different from how it might in other areas of Ontario. That is part of the message Trudy Sachowski brought to the 2019 Association of Local Public Health Agencies (alPHa) Winter Symposium in Toronto.

Sachowski is the northwestern regional representative of alPHa, alPHa executive member, and chair of the board of health section. She’s also the vice chair of the Northwestern Board of Health.

At the symposium, attended by 34 public heath units, Sachowski presented the perspective of a northern board of health member.

“Risk factors of mental wellness and mental illness differ across our vast province,” she explained. “Remote, rural and northern areas have higher self-reported rates of poor mental health coupled with a significant decline in services. In the north, medication and hospitalization rates are twice that of the provincial average. Substance abuse rates are significantly higher.

“Northern Ontario has higher incidents of suicide compared to other regions. Male suicides are three times higher. First Nations peoples are at risk for suicide 3.7 times higher than non-indigenous. First Nation youth are five to six times higher than non-Indigenous youth.”

In the north, she added, access to service, wait times, lack of public transit and high travel costs, geography and remoteness all pose obstacles to obtaining a diagnosis and receiving treatment.

“Accessing mental health services in small communities can be challenging from a privacy perspective since individuals do not have the same level of anonymity as those in larger communities,” she added.

One of Sachowski’s messages was this: despite the unique challenges, northerners are resilient.

“Residents of northern rural communities have been shown to have a significantly increased sense of social connectedness and belonging to their communities, compared to the provincial average,” she shared. “This strength is something we build on for mental health promotion work in the north.”

The Northwestern Health Unit (NWHU) is currently working to finalize an agency mental health promotion strategy, Sachowski shared, noting local boards of health and health units are working to locally tailor programs for the critical early years. One dollar invested in early childhood is equivalent to $3 spent on school age children and $8 on young adults, she shared.

“We know upstream prevention realizes significant health outcomes, with significant reduction overall to the healthcare system.”

The NWHU’s programming includes a self esteem workshop for girls in grades seven and eight, a positive ticketing program in local schools, mental health support kits for school staff, and ‘The Fourth R,’ a 14-week initiative on mental health currently being promoted to schools.

“Although boards of health and health units across our fine province are diverse in their composition and their demographics, we all share a passion to serve in the best of interests of the health and well-being of our people,” Sachowski concluded.

“Trudy Sachowski was an intrinsic part of the planning of the alPHa Symposium and one of the key speakers in the program,” shared Loretta Ryan, alPHA executive director. “She is an inspirational leader and a dedicated volunteer. It is through the actions of our members, such as Trudy, that alPHa is able to be the voice of the public health system.”

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