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  • Gayle Baker

Alarming Cracks in our Mental Health Systems - and Caring Peer Support Workers Seeking to Fill Them

August 5

While we began with a very small circle of participants, during our time together, a total of 15 joined our conversation about mental health in our community. Always seeking to attract youth and young families to these ASK Salt Spring gatherings, we hit the jackpot with our 16th - and youngest yet guest - infant Benjamin brought smiles to all of us.

After our Territorial Acknowledgement we welcomed our special guests, David Norget, Willie MacPherson, and Sherman I. Sherwood .ksc to discuss mental health in our community. They were joined by Shae Houston, a Community Services caseworker focused on youth and family addiction issues, eager to contribute to the mental health conversation on Salt Spring.

Willie, with experience as a full-time Community Services peer counselor, began by speaking about the incredible value of lived experience when supporting those facing trauma. While he understood the value of education as well, he spoke with passion about the empathy and understanding that comes only from the lived experiences offered by peer support workers. While he recognizes that masters level clinicians are also critical, he has hopes for a local mental health structure that more fully-utilizes the skills of peer support workers.

In Willie’s considered opinion, Lived experience is the new expertise.He lauded the Umbrella Society ( as a model of the perfect marriage of education, structure, and lived expertise.

Shae spoke about the important conversation about youth addiction on Salt Spring. While so many adults/parents are doing a marvelous job addressing these issues; others are not having that conversation. She hopes to facilitate this conversation, sometimes complicated by fears and strong opinions, to achieve the understanding and empathy we need to successfully address the addiction issues of too many of our youths.

David Norget, ( a mental health professional and resident of Salt Spring for 33 years, as well as a parent of two, spoke of the importance of creating a good community through empathetic connections. As Co-chair of the Salt Spring Health Advancement Network - SSHAN (, he - as well as other participants of this ASK Salt Spring gathering - spoke about the on-going Mental Health Initiative (

David was one of many who lauded the work of SSHAN’s Mental Health Initiative, currently made possible by funding from a CRD Grant-in-Aid and Island Health's Community Wellness Grants. (The Initiative is very thankful for this support!)

We learned that the amazing results of SSHAN’s Mental Health Initiative were largely due to intensive pre-planning as well as inclusion of a series of elements that build a Culture of Care ( (Group agreements are one of these essential elements.) Their work is only beginning. Next steps include the creation of a volunteer counselling program in our community, expanded peer support to service a variety of provider organizations, continued acquisition of funding, and expanded partnerships with organizations and community members.

Sherman shared that he had been coming to Salt Spring over a span of 34 years. During these years, he has been in a variety of circumstances, ranging from comfortable to inadequately housed and struggling with mental health issues. He has seen Salt Spring change during these years, saddened by the divisions he sees today.

The first question was - Why a gathering about mental health. Are our problems here worse than other parts of BC? This participant got a range of answers from our guests that included the reality that Salt Spring currently has neither all the resources nor the coordination to address this significant community problem. We learned that many come to our island to heal, unaware of the serious gaps in our mental health support services. Did you know that a recent survey (Salt Spring Community Needs Assessment Report initiated by the Salt Spring Community Health Society (2019) revealed that 50% of the Salt Springers who sought mental health counseling were not helped, largely due to challenges of navigating the system as well as long wait times?

We learned that, while there are lots of caring workers on Salt Spring, we have an extremely strained system, made even worse by the pandemic. Despite good intentions, we struggle - and often fail. There is room to deepen caring and listening in may places in our community.

We also learned that empathetic listening is important when one’s client is “misbehaving.” It is only after this empathy has created trust that those expressing anger will feel heard and may be ready to learn the coping skills they need to function effectively. As long as boundaries are clear, we learned that it is okay for a client to express anger in a peer support or counseling situation. We were reminded that these boundaries and empathetic listening create that foundation of the Culture of Care we need on Salt Spring.

Aware of the cracks in our mental health support systems, our experts were asked: What can we do? There are many avenues. Those interested in helping as peer support workers can do peer training to assess their skills and, by doing so, will understand what they can do to nurture the philosophy of Culture of Care in our community.

At the start of the pandemic as mental health challenges increased, the energetic volunteers of the Salt Spring Community Health Society ( began an amazing program to address these problems: Mental Health First Aid (

Remarkably, over 80 have already graduated from this course, designed to prepare Salt Springers with the skills to recognize those experiencing mental health issues and provide help. Always seeking connections, it was theorized that these graduates may be interested in being part of the Ambassador Program, a possible collaboration between the RCMP and our Chamber which would support community members who walk our village, developing relationships of trust with all, including those who are marginalized or insecurely- or unhoused.

As 1:00 approached, we all offered grateful acknowledgment to our special guests, Willie, Sherman, and David for their tenacity in the face of systemic barriers to mental health services on Salt Spring, deep understanding and caring, and optimism in the face of the complex challenges of achieving mental health. (Thanks, Sherman, David, and Willie!)

Please join us Friday, August 12, 11-1, in the United Church Meadow to welcome all currently-declared CRD candidates for our October 15, 2022 Local Election, CRD Electoral Director, Gary Holman, and Kylie Coates.

What would you like to ask them?

  • What do you see as Salt Spring’s most pressing problems?

  • If you are elected, what would you accomplish during your four years in office?

  • What do you see as the biggest challenges to accomplishing your goals?

  • Can you identify your skills that will help you to overcome these challenges?

  • What do you think about a Local Community Commission for Salt Spring?

  • Do you support the Speculation and Vacancy Tax for Salt Spring?

  • As Electoral Director, how would you break down our silos?

  • And?

Please join us to welcome Kylie Coates and Gary Holman this Friday, August 12, 11-1, in the United Church Meadow!

Any question, anytime:

Want to see reports from all the ASK Salt Spring gatherings?

Want to help? ASK Salt Spring now has a Save-a-Tape box at Country Grocer.

We love your receipts! Remember: #15

(Our Partners. . . .

Our rent - reduced through the generosity of our Library -

is being paid for byIsland Savings’ Simple Generosity grant.

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