A recent publication released by the Saskatchewan Children’s Advocate emphasized a stark and concerning reality: suicide is the leading cause of death among people aged 15 to 24, and transgender and gender-diverse youth are seven times more likely to attempt suicide than their cisgender peers. This is particularly significant, as previous suicide attempts are a major indicator for death by suicide.
The report paints a distressing picture of the mental health challenges faced by these young people, revealing that nearly two-thirds of transgender and non-binary youth in Canada have either self-harmed and/or seriously considered suicide within the past year. In Saskatchewan and Manitoba, a staggering 94 per cent of transgender and non-binary youth have reported experiencing emotional or mental health concerns lasting at least 12 months.
“I’ve seen a startling increase in suicidal ideation and suicide attempts in queer people in general,” says social worker Emily Ritenburg (she/they) BSW’18. “There’s a sense of hopelessness in the current climate. They are navigating profound hate and damaged relationships from transphobia. There is a lot of grieving in the queer community right now.”
Mental health care can be difficult for many people to access due to lack of capacity, cost and geography. 2SLGBTQIAP+ folks face additional barriers, because not all counsellors understand their unique lived experiences. Jacq Brasseur (they/them) CSW'13, BSW'15, has accessed mental health supports in the past and says, “It can be really frustrating when you can’t find a practitioner who shares your understanding of the world, your values and what it’s like to be queer in a place like Saskatchewan.” They mention that many of their friends have gone outside the province for care, hiring virtual counsellors from Vancouver, Edmonton, and Montreal. “It’s great that’s an option, but those practitioners don’t understand the reality of queer rights and queer issues in Saskatchewan.”
Fortunately, there is Aroha Pride Counselling & Consulting, a Saskatchewan-based anti-oppressive, anti-racist, queer affirming, sex positive mental health services provider. Their social workers provide virtual mental health services to youth, adults and families, reaching people in areas like rural Saskatchewan, where mental health care can be harder to find. Ritenburg started Aroha in 2021. The firm’s name means “love” in Māori, an homage to Ritenburg’s maternal Ngāruahine lineage and an indication of the spirit in which care is provided.
Ritenburg’s expertise stems from both lived experience and formal training. “As a queer person who has both navigated mental health systems and provided services as a social worker, I have extra knowledge of how to offer compassion and empathy in treatment,” she says.
Meeting the needs of the community
Starting her own firm was important in order to have the freedom to work in a way that aligns with her values. “We’re a fully virtual counselling practice. There is a lack of mental health services for rural queer people, particularly rural queer youth,” she explains. “Many of my clients say it’s the first time they’ve accessed counselling that meets their needs, because services are so scarce where they’re from, or they’re afraid to access them due to attitudes in the community.” Ritenburg mentions that many queer people in rural areas are not able to come out or have to be secretive about their identities due to queerphobia and transphobia: “They may risk alienation and ostracization in their communities if they’re openly queer.”
Aroha (pronounced similarly to the Hawaiian word, aloha) also recognizes that 2SLGBTQIAP+ people disproportionately live in poverty. “As with all marginalized groups, the likelihood of struggling financially is higher, and many are living from paycheque to paycheque,” Ritenburg acknowledges. In response, Aroha offers reduced rates and sliding scale services as much as possible, while still keeping the business sustainable.
The counselling practice was founded independently, but when an overwhelming number of people began reaching out for services, Ritenburg approached other social workers to avoid turning clients away. Now Aroha has five counsellors serving Saskatchewan. With team members holding addition licensing, they’ve expanded their reach to Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario and Nova Scotia.
“We take the quality of service we provide very seriously,” Ritenburg explains. “When I seek out people to work on our team, I give consideration to the identities and skills they bring and balance that with their education. The people I work with need to be able to demonstrate the quality and competency needed to work with queer people.” Being a virtual practice also makes it easier to find practitioners that align with Aroha’s values and opens the opportunity to work with clients beyond Saskatchewan’s borders.
Strength in numbers
Ritenburg is also involved in a group of queer mental health professionals across Saskatchewan who connect every other month to ensure she’s keeping on top of the climate of queer mental health in the province. “There are a lot of people—queer people and allies—who are really dedicated to this work,” she says.
She began exploring her interest in serving the 2SLGBTQIAP+ community during her bachelor of social work practicum at UR Pride in 2018. Many undergrad social work practicums involve shadowing or doing work practicing social workers don’t have time for. Brasseur, Ritenburg’s advisor and a social work grad themselves, had different ideas: “When I made the choice to take on practicum students, I wanted it to be meaningful. I invited the practicum students to develop their own kinds of projects.”
Ritenburg’s project evaluated how well the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Regina was preparing students to work with the 2SLGBTQIAP+ community and on 2SLGBTQIAP+ issues. She found that the faculty, at the time, could be doing a better job. “It was an opportunity to open up important dialogue with the faculty on how to strategize and move forward on better preparing students to work with these demographics,” she explains.
Brasseur was impressed. “Emily’s research project was really phenomenal. It takes a lot of guts to be in a faculty and work on a project that potentially challenges the way it is doing things,” they remark. “It was one of the first times that I can remember meeting an aspiring social worker who was willing to think critically about social work in the same way as me. It made me feel less alone, professionally.”
The master’s touch
UR Pride published Ritenburg’s report and used her findings to inform the way the organization educates professionals such as social workers, teachers, child welfare workers on 22SLGBTQIAP+ issues. Ritenburg also presented her research at the Congress of Humanities and Social Sciences at the U of R and was awarded the Outstanding Student Proposal Award from the Canadian Association of Social Work Education, the organization that accredits the Faculty of Social Work. Presenting at Congress was a unique experience for an undergrad—her research was ethics approved—and it gave her a foot in the door to the master’s of social work program, a degree she is currently pursuing at the University alongside her clinical work.
Given what a good fit social work is for Ritenburg, some may be surprised to find out that it wasn’t her original professional goal. She started out in arts education, following in their mother’s footsteps. “I really value integrating the arts into education and everything that we do,” Ritenburg says. She soon realized that it wasn’t sustainable for her, though the experience deepened her respect for the work teachers do. She switched to social work because it is so broadly applicable. “You can start in one area and then change it up five years later. There is so much diversity of opportunities,” she explains, going on to say, “Social work aligns with my values of showing up for people who lack resources and whom others take for granted.”
As her practicum topic illustrated, Ritenburg is able to be critical of the profession she is devoted to, particularly due to its history of enabling the Residential School system and the 60s Scoop. “It’s important for us to challenge our history and work on reconciliation in our profession,” she asserts.
The power of community
As much as Ritenburg loves her work, it can be demanding and emotional. On the hard days, she reflects on the power of the queer community. “Queer people don’t have a lot of elders to look up to because of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the lack of response to it. A lot of 2SLGBTQIAP+ people don’t make it to adulthood. We lose others to mental health issues and addictions. On the other side, there is resilience rooted in our chosen family and community. No matter what’s going on, whether it’s legislation or clients struggling, that’s one thing that can never be taken from us: the lineage we have in leaning on our community,” she explains, her voice breaking with emotion.
To decompress, Ritenburg likes to sew, build miniatures and do any kind of crafting or do-it-yourself project that involves a lot of problem solving. She also collects vinyl—80s hardcore punk, 80s and 90s alternative music, new wave and proto punk music. “Nerdy stuff,” she laughs.
Family is an important priority for Ritenburg as well. She has a close relationship with her parents, who have always been supportive of her identity and ambitions. “Growing up, my mom instilled in me that it’s important to be authentic and show up for people who lack access to resources or aren’t being advocated for. I pride myself in bringing authenticity to the work I do,” she explains. “My dad instilled in me a way to do that work sustainably. I learned that if I lean too much on that work and the passion that goes into it, it may not be sustainable. I take a little from each parent. Then there’s Ritenburg’s kitty, Lenny, whom she helps on his journey to become accustomed to life with only three legs.
Ritenburg concludes, “I place a lot of value in community. I recognize that it’s not reasonable or possible to be the change I want to see in the world without people in my life who make me feel I can do that, and without me supporting others in doing that. We need to lean into collaboration with others.”
Brasseur recognizes Ritenburg’s role in creating that community: “I met Emily in her role as a student, but I’ve never felt that she’s learning more from me than I am from her. She has really addressed that gap in meaningful 2SLGBTQIAP+ counselling in a way that’s by and for queer and trans people. I think that’s really special. I am confident that Emily has saved people’s lives in our province.”