It’s never easy to help people with emotional problems. But the Crees and Inuit of generations past had a method that was both simple and effective.

A respected Elder would meet with the person or a couple that was having problems to listen, talk and give suggestions. The Elder acted as a confidant, advisor and mediator, never as a judge. Intervention was made quickly before the problem got worse.

This system is still in place today, but there is also a parallel system. It is made up of a jumble of laws, agencies and social workers all trying to help people. There are now two systems instead of just one, but many people feel that neither system is working today. The old system based on Elders has been somewhat pushed aside, while the new system seems foreign and employs few Native caregivers.

A typical story is that of one Inuk man in Nunavik who had a history of chronic solvent abuse and emotional problems.

Social-services workers in Nunavik decided to send him for help to a hospital in the south. The man didn’t speak English or French, and there was no translation in the hospital.

He spent three years there without getting any treatment, except for lots of psychiatric drugs. Then he was sent back north, with the same problems as before.

The story doesn’t surprise Lolly Annahatak, a social worker at the Tulattavik Hospital in Kuujjuak. “There’s quite a few like that. That doesn’t surprise me,” she said.

Annahatak, 46, was the first person in Nunavik to get a Bachelor of Social Work degree. She graduated from McGill University in 1996. The accomplishment stands out all the more because she is blind.

She said the Nunavik health system’s biggest challenges are a lack of funding, burnout among employees and a language and cultural barrier between the many non-Inuit workers and Inuit community members. The high number of suicides also takes a toll on the workers, she said. “Today we’re between two worlds.”

Annahatak said the leadership of the Nunavik health network should speak more about prevention of suicide. “They should talk about it more and give more information. There should be more voice.”