Addiction help a phone call away through new Indigenous health program

Addiction help will soon be just a phone call away for people living in Chippewas of the Thames First Nation, Oneida Nation of the Thames and Munsee-Delaware Nation.

Beginning in mid-July, a cultural outreach team based in Chippewas of the Thames First Nation will circulate in all three communities, equipped with clean needles, safe drug use supplies—like sterile water and cooking pots—and information about addiction treatment.  The sacred medicines sage and tobacco will also be part of the toolkits, said community health nurse Heather Nicholas.

“If [clients] want to talk to the Creator and do prayers, or put their tobacco down to ask for help, that’s available for them as well,” said Nicholas, who added that the team will also help clients access cultural services.  “If they need to see a traditional healer, [we] have that information for them; if they want a naming ceremony, how do they go about that; if they want to go to a sweat, how do they do that.”

The idea is that clients who begin using the outreach program for needle exchange will go on to use other healthcare and cultural services, and strengthen ties with their communities, said Nicholas.   The community has secured three years of funding for the program through the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care.

How it works

Maintaining privacy is a major consideration for the project, given that the outreach staff will be working in small communities, said Nicholas.  “Everybody knows everybody’s business, like a fishbowl scenario,” she said.    With that in mind, clients can call a toll-free number and connect directly with an outreach worker. They won’t have to go through administration or wait for an appointment, which can in itself be a barrier for people living with addiction, Nicholas said.

The toll-free number is 1-866-289-0544.

Outreach staff will also use their own cars, rather than a designated vehicle.   “It’s the best way of servicing the community without saying ‘Oh yeah I see this van up at your place’ sort of thing,” said Nicholas. “So it’s individual cars, and they could be there for a number of reasons.”

Staff will be available between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. every day. The hours were chosen in consultation with the the Regional HIV/Aids Connection, which operates a needle exchange program in London, and where peak times tend to be clustered between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., Nicholas said.

A growing need for service

As in London, stray needles are an ongoing issue for the community, said Nicholas.   “I’ve had grandmothers come in with garbage bags full of needles [who] didn’t know what to do with them, and where to dispose of them,” she said, adding that the needles will pop up in all kinds of areas, including playgrounds, and fishing spots.

Meanwhile, the addiction rate in the community increased by 9 % between 2011 and 2016, according to health administrator Kimberly Fisher.   The problem has links to the community’s historical experience with residential school, said Fisher. Some families at Chippewas of the Thames First Nation have had two or even three generations go through the school.  Compounding that inter-generational trauma are ‘everyday life’ traumas, such as car accidents, suicides and deaths, Fisher said.

“Not having the mechanism to identify that trauma and move on has had a great impact,” she said.  The cultural outreach program will help people deal with some of those traumas, and to draw on their strengths, Fisher said. For instance, a client with a talent for Indigenous languages could be tapped to help with youth language programs, she said.  “A lot of community members do isolate themselves, so this is building those relationships and drawing on their strengths and bringing them back into the community,” she said.

“It’s really to give them purpose, meaning, hope and belonging, because that’s what every community member wants.”

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