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Mental Health in Wood Buffalo

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This has been a difficult year for our region. The May wildfire has resulted in anguish and anxiety for many families as they deal with the lingering effects it has had on their mental health. This has led to mental health being a top concern and has led to increase demand on service. In response, Alberta Health Services (AHS) has taken steps to address the increased demand and meet community need.

“We were very fortunate to receive temporary funding enhancements to manage the increase in service demand and change in complexity of referrals and needs of people accessing addiction and mental health services,” says Debra Samek, Director of Addiction & Mental Health Services, North Zone East for Alberta Health Services.

According to Samek, the services offered through Addiction and Mental Health are designed to address a wide variety of needs.

“We have a number of services we encourage individuals to use when they feel they need help. It’s important to realize that not everyone needs long courses of therapy and treatment. Sometimes you need advice or reassurance that you’re on the right track, some connection to other resources that can help you or help navigating complex systems when your resources or your ability to do that for yourself isn’t at its best.”

The enhanced services offered by AHS include a walk-in counselling clinic, completely free to users.

“People can come for any reason – any addiction, emotional or mental health need – and our goal is to help people address that concern or crisis, help link them to other services or help them get over immediate crisis,” says Samek.

Community addictions services were also enhanced and include a full team of addictions counsellors to provide information, prevention and treatment to individuals with concerns about their own drug, alcohol or substance use or concerns about a loved one’s use.

Samek notes that the stress of the wildfire brought on new addiction and mental health concerns for some individuals and exacerbated existing concerns for others.

“Overarching all of this is an increase in stress and anxiety for people. One of the complexities is prior to the fire, there was a significant economic downturn in Fort McMurray so people were already experiencing stress, then you overlay that with the fire,” she says. “The other piece is adjustment – people adjusting to the fact that for some, their lives are different. There is certainly a change of circumstances that many people are having to come to terms with and cope with.”

Samek adds that services have expanded to address additional complexities such as pre-existing depression and anxiety.

“We have a specialized team that works with people with chronic and persistent mental illness that really impacts their day-to-day life and quality of life in a significant way,” she says. “With additional supports, we’ve expanded the scope to really provide services to people with more complex needs.”

“We also have a crisis team who respond to psychiatric emergencies and crises in the Emergency Department [of the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre], and have expanded their service scope to deal with increased presentations of people in crisis. We’re also in the process of developing a mobile crisis team,” continues Samek.

According to Samek, Public Health has also received additional government support for wellness and resiliency programming, in addition to supporting the Aboriginal communities more closely.

“It’s all about trying to understand the community need and addressing that accordingly,” says Samek.

If you need help or support, or know someone who does, please visit for more information and resources.


New position helps families access resources in times of need

The Northern Lights Health Foundation is also committed to assisting with addiction and mental health supports for our community – including child and youth mental health. One example of this is the funding of a new Children and Youth Mental Health Navigator position for Wood Buffalo.

The Navigator will serve as a point of entry for child and youth mental health referrals in the region. The goal of the position is to support children, youth and families in accessing services and navigating the health care system. The Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) supported the funding of the position with a $100,000 gift to the Health Foundation.


Resiliency training supports families in “bouncing back”

In addition to the Child and Youth Mental Health Navigator position, several programs previously funded by the Health Foundation continue to have an impact on residents post-wildfire.

For example, the Bounce Back and Thrive! Resiliency Training Skills Program, funded by RBC in 2014, continues to make great strides in supporting families and children.

Elizabeth Benner, one of the program’s facilitators in Fort McMurray, shares that the 10-week program builds the resiliency skills in both parents and children “in the realm of being flexible when hurdles come in life and help them get back up again.”

“The first six weeks of the program are geared towards parents, building their skills and doing self-reflection; and the last four weeks are very specific to child-focused strategies – what can you do for your young child to help them in getting up when life knocks them down, and help them be resilient and navigate.”

According to Benner, the program supported a number of Wood Buffalo families throughout the Wildfire.

“One parent [who participated in the program] came back and said that the program changed their life!” says Benner. “And two parents said they would’ve been different parents to their kids during the evacuation hadn’t taken this training, so they had built, and worked and processed their own stuff, gained some skills for themselves so when a major catastrophe happened, they were better prepared then they would’ve been before.”

The Bounce Back and Thrive! Program continues to have real benefits to parents and their children as they resettle into the community shares Benner.

“The real big benefit is that parents feel empowered. It’s a safe place for parents to voice their struggles and frustrations. We set guidelines and there is no judgment so it’s a safe place for parents to vent and get some peer support over the fact that they aren’t alone, raising kids is hard and you can do it.”

Benner closes with a candid thank you to donors of the Health Foundation for supporting initiatives such as Bounce Back and Thrive!

“Thank you on behalf of parents and young families in Wood Buffalo. You’ll never really know the impact funding programs like this can have. It really does have the ability to change people’s lives.”


Wood Buffalo Addiction & Mental Health Resource Guide

Alberta Health Services

  • Mental Health and Addiction Walk-In Counselling Services: Monday to Friday, 9:00 a.m. to 9:15 p.m. 10217 Queen Street
  • HealthLink: 24/7. Tel 811
  • Mental Health Help Line: 24/7 Tel 877-303-2642
  • SOS - Crisis Line: 24/7 Tel 780-743-HELP (4357)
  • Mental Health Services, NLRHC Tel 780-791-6194
  • Assertive Outreach Services. Tel 780-743-7187
  • Addiction Services. Tel 780-743-7187
  • Fort McMurray Recovery Centre Tel 780-793-8300
  • Pastew Place Detox Centre: 24/7 Tel 780-791-2525


Canadian Mental Health

Association Wood Buffalo

  • Teen Anger Management
  • Anger Management for Adults
  • Stress Management
  • Empower Self-Esteem
  • Teen Self-Esteem
  • Healthy Relationships Plus Program
  • Living Life to the Full
  • Mental Health First Aid (MHFA)
  • Applied Suicide Intervention Skill Training (ASIST)
  • Mental Health Works
  • Psychological Health and Safety Advisor
  • Clubhouse
  • Basic and Advanced Facilitation


Some Other Solutions (SOS)

  • Child and Youth Program
  • Information and Referral Program
  • Health & Wellness Program

Amelia Schofield is a marketing and communications professional based in Fort McMurray, AB. She’s currently the Marketing and Communications Officer with the Northern Lights Health Foundation and a regular contributor to YMM Magazine.  Amelia is also the Owner + Creator of Amelia Emily Design, a local business specializing in knitted goods.

Follow Amelia on Twitter at @AmeliaSchfld