A network that aims to co-create a community where everyone belongs will hold summits starting this month around peer support, lay counselling and how these can contribute to mental wellness on Salt Spring Island.
The Salt Spring Health Advancement Network (SSHAN) has been working behind the scenes for the past year on this initiative, which will bring together service providers, people who access services, people who are marginalized and other community members. The first two summits, set for Jan. 11 and 18, will explore peer support and how it could help fill mental health service gaps.
At least half of the people who need such services on Salt Spring either don’t get access to them or are on waitlists that are a year long at this point, said William MacPherson, who has lived experience of mental illness and addiction as a young man and is a support worker, public speaker and coordinator of the upcoming summits. This need was outlined in a 2019 community health needs assessment put together by the Salt Spring Community Health Society, which also found that people needing services for chronic illness, disabilities, substance use or those experiencing violence could only access these services 50 per cent of the time.
All statistics are pre-pandemic, and since then things have become more acute, said David Norget, who is an on-call emergency mental health clinician at the hospital, a registered clinical counsellor and co-chair of the SSHAN.
While Island Health provides counselling, case management and psychiatry on the island, Lady Minto Hospital does frontline mental health work and the school district provides services to children and youth. Salt Spring Island Community Services and other non-profits work to fill the gaps. Waitlists are long and the system is challenging to navigate, said MacPherson.
The summits are a part of addressing these long wait times and gaps, as well as in a broader way shifting mental health from being a medical issue to a community issue. “There’s . . . growing recognition that not all mental health problems can be solved within the narrow confines of the medical model,” MacPherson said. “So there’s an interest in broadening our capacity, using existing community members who have their own skills and strengths.”
Mental health problems, oftentimes, are community-based problems, he added.
“They’re how we relate to ourselves and each other in community, and we’ve made a mistake in thinking that the medical system should be the only organizations responsible for that.”
Sherman Sherwood has alternated between living across Canada and on Salt Spring for the past 15 to 20 years and experienced mental trauma, physical issues and stigma. With a lot of experience providing peer support, Sherwood said he’s seen what a “magical formula” it can be.
“In the communities that I would land in, caring for the community helped me understand further what I was going through . . . it seemed that the more I cared for my community, the more clarity of my own issues was coming to light,” he said.
Mutual support is a much more empowering model, said MacPherson, compared to being a passive receiver of services, which can be undermining and triggering.
Lay counselling, Norget explained, is more formalized with one-on-one sessions that are more accessible than regular counselling, as finances are not a barrier. Peer support is broad, he said. It’s about creating connections, sparking ideas and has a strong social justice component.
AmanDa Paska, who said she has challenges with mental wellness and has also spent time as a volunteer in Victoria’s tent city, said mentorship was a critical part of her path and she hopes the summit does the same in allowing people to network and connect to community.
A big part of mentorship for Paska was being able to learn and having someone taking the time to work with her, as well as compensation for her time or some form of exchange and support. Empathy, belonging and a non-judgemental space were also crucial, she added.
While she was at tent city, she would see some people coming by either offering support or driving by yelling “get a job.” People who don’t understand what someone might be struggling with may have an expectation that “you can just give a job to somebody with mental health issues and . . . fix everything,” she said. “But it goes way deeper than that.”
One of the SSHAN’s goals is to eliminate isolation and siloing between organizations and community members, and to create a space in local organizations where volunteers can participate and support community members, MacPherson said.
“We as helpers, or maybe more privileged community members, we want to fix this thing. But we don’t always talk to the people to ask them what they’re wanting,” Norget said. A critical part of SSHAN’s work and the summits is involving in a meaningful way people with lived experience and marginalized voices.
The community health society has trained over 60 people in mental health first aid, which Norget sees as indicating a clear interest in the topic on Salt Spring.
The first summits on Tuesday, Jan. 11 from 2 to 5 p.m. and Tuesday, Jan. 18 from 3 to 6 p.m. will focus on peer support. In February, the focus is on lay counselling, and in March it will be about action coming out of the previous summits. Meetings will take place online, via the video- conferencing system Zoom, and in person at the library subject to the unfolding pandemic situation.