RAAM clinic grand opening a success

Elisa Nguyen
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Following the successful completion of events held in honour of National Addictions Awareness week surrounding the theme “a community of caring,” a local leader for the Rapid Access Addiction Medicine (RAAM) clinic located in Fort Frances highlighted that the continued partnership of multiple health organizations make it possible for more resources to be offered during a time of limited capacity and increasing demands.

“There is a significant and crisis state of addictions everywhere, in addition to the challenges individuals, families and communities are struggling with, and although [the RAAM clinic] will not ‘fix’ this issue, the goal is to do what we can and help how we can,” said Lisa Belluz, manager of mental health and addictions at Riverside Community Counseling and local lead for the RAAM clinic.

The clinic had its official grand opening on November 23, the day when the community and health care partners across the district gathered for an event addressing the addictions and overdose crisis.

At the event, individuals were provided an opportunity to offer tobacco and pray for loved ones who have been impacted by addictions, then an addictions awareness walk followed, ending at the RAAM clinic site where Belluz and her team were introduced and spoke about the journey toward opening the clinic, future hopes, and the overall situation across northern Ontario.

Presently, there is only one RAAM clinic in the district located at the Riverside Health Care Community Building on 206 Victoria Avenue, Fort Frances.

“However, the goal is to continually grow and be able to offer full RAAM services throughout the district and into our more remote communities. Also, a mobile outreach component will be added in the New Year,” said Belluz.

The clinic provides “Rapid Access to Addictions Medicine” and offers barrier free services to assist individuals struggling with addictions in attaining their goals regarding substance use.

Belluz said that “rapid” means the ability to see a physician within a few days, with other services often available even sooner. The RAAM clinic offers rapid access to a physician, nurse, counseling and peer support all in one location.

She added that the RAAM clinic is just one of many resources offered to support individuals with addictions. “We are all unique and it is important to have a variety of service options that are able to work together to assist individuals in whatever way works best for them.”

“It was a challenge to even get started, I would often think of us as ‘the little engine that could,’” said Belluz.

In the “initial phase,” three health care partners successfully obtained support to recruit a counselor and a nurse to work on-site. Shortly after, the COVID-19 pandemic began and the partners faced increased recruitment challenges along with increased demands on all management and staff, which delayed the opening of the RAAM clinic.

Belluz said she recognizes that the clinic is not perfect or where they would like to be, “but we have come so far,” she said. The clinic continues to face challenges regarding capacity, funding, and technology, but they owe their successes to the collaboration of six active healthcare partners that have shared knowledge and resources.

“Regional support has been implemented through a hub and spoke model, with St. Joseph Care Group the designated hub,” Belluz said, noting that the six active partners include Riverside Health Care, Giishkaandago’Ikwe Health Services, CMHA Fort Frances, Gizhewaadiziwin Health Access Centre, Northwestern Health Unit, and St. Joseph Care Group in Thunder Bay.

“It could be quite easy to become overwhelmed and consumed by challenges but ultimately RAAM continues to persevere and find ways to make it work,” Belluz said.

She said the team is motivated to keep going because of all the success stories they’ve heard, including the testimonies shared in-person at the awareness event on November 23, and the small moments when a client shares a heartfelt thanks.

Lisa Belluz, right, and says a few words at a public open house of the new RAAM clinic, as other organizers look on. – Allan Bradbury photo

“There were four individuals who shared success stories with the program, two who spoke in-person at the event. This was very touching and inspiring and certainly what keeps us motivated in working through barriers and challenges to provide this service.”

“Clients often express that they feel they have made progress. Knowing that there is an impact, it becomes more of ‘how can we make this work’ instead of focusing on the challenges that need to be overcome,” Belluz said.

“Some people will access a service and will recover more quickly, other people may need longer or may need to access services several times. If a person isn’t ready and wants to return for service, RAAM will be here. People can return as often as they need to. We are all on our own differing personal journeys and the goal of RAAM is to be here supportively and without judgment.”

“Anyone struggling from addictions and wanting to make some change can benefit from RAAM. There is no wrong referral as the team is well aware of other services and resources that may be helpful if RAAM is not the right fit for you and can assist you in accessing more appropriate services if required.”

When asked what changes she would like to see in northern Ontario to better support individuals with addictions, Belluz highlighted the need for more resources and funding, increased prevention services, greater capacities to support families, and more services specifically for the increasing rate of youth facing addictions.

Lastly, Belluz said that what is needed most is to acknowledge the on-going efforts of service providers.

“It is also important to always recognize the monumental efforts all our services are making with limited capacities, limited funding and continually increasing demands. Our direct service providers have worked incredibly hard throughout the pandemic and continue to support our communities. These are challenging and demanding jobs and times and I think it is important that as a community we recognize how fortunate we are to have the services we have,” Belluz said.

“I really would like to include a big shout out of appreciation to everyone working in all of the mental health and addictions sectors and express much gratitude and thanks for all that you do.”