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Home > news > Interview with DMHS’ Aboriginal Mental Health and Addictions Worker

While the local community mental health sector has grown in recent years, few services existed specifically directed at the needs of the growing Aboriginal population. To address this gap, DMHS applied for and received funding for an Aboriginal Mental Health and Addictions Outreach Worker. That position has been filled since October 2015 by DMHS staff Connie Spencer.

We sat down with Connie to learn more about her role and the future of local supports for the Aboriginal community.

What is the purpose of your position?

My position exists to help self-identified Aboriginal people who experience mental health and addiction issues. The ultimate goal is to help clients avoid hospitalization and Emergency Room usage and to build effective networks of community-based supports. There is much more to the role than simply front-line client support, however. I provide support and consultation to DMHS staff around Aboriginal issues. I sit on committees that play a role in system development, including the Central East LHIN’s Metis Non-Status Inuit Health Advisory Circle and the Durham Region Aboriginal Advisory Committee. We’ve also sponsored cultural competency training for DMHS staff, including a two-day event this past spring at the Oshawa and District Shrine Club.

What do you bring to this position?

I grew up in Toronto but spent every summer among the Wahta community, so I have insight into both the Aboriginal urban experience and into life in Aboriginal communities. It’s important to stress that every Aboriginal community is different; there is no one typical community experience. Another aspect of my lived experience is that almost every member of my family has or had some kind of mental health and/or addiction issues. I can relate to the struggle and to the stigma and I have seen first-hand how mainstream mental health and addictions services sometimes do not service Aboriginal needs in culturally sensitive ways.

Professionally, I worked with Aboriginal and Inuit youth in a residential group home setting. These clients came directly from Northern communities (Nunavut, etc.) and had no experience of local ways. After this, I worked with the urban Aboriginal youth population (up to age 29) at Oshawa Community Health Centre. Then I found my role here at DMHS.

What do you like about this role?

I’ve found that DMHS is open to change and to creative ways to serve clients. I like that I am actually with the client in the community as opposed to them having to come to an office setting. This role lets me meet clients where they are at. I like the openness to celebrating Aboriginal culture through events such as the National Aboriginal Day Celebration.

What does your ideal system look like in Durham Region and how can DMHS help grow this?

My ideal would be for agencies across Durham to not just be culturally competent but to provide cultural safety to clients. To me, cultural competence is about learning information; but cultural safety is a cultural shift – when an individual can go into an agency and say that they feel safe, respected and represented within that agency. For example, in a Scarborough hospital many signs are written in Tamil; this makes the Tamil community feel culturally safe, so they feel safe to go there. By keeping on promoting education and awareness of Aboriginal culture, DMHS can gradually move towards this goal.

What are your hopes for the future?

That all service providers move towards providing culturally safe practices. I’d also love to see more funding for Aboriginal initiatives across Durham Region.