For the first time in her career, Maryana St. Hilaire is working from home. She is one of eight OCISO clinical counsellors who because of the COVID-19 pandemic began working remotely on March 16.
Transitioning the counseling services for newcomers to remote delivery involved a series of steps and modifications. It had layers of change and has been an adjustment, both at the professional and personal level.
“We also have our own fears and difficulties, because COVID-19 is affecting everyone in our community,” says Maryana. “It can be challenging for my own self-care, but I still connect with team members remotely or listen to music.”
“Our program has been in existence since 1994 and all along the way we have always adapted to meet the needs of the clients we serve,” says Patricia Davies, Manager, Counselling Program. “COVID-19 brought about some unprecedented challenges, but the whole organization pulled together to ensure we were still able to meet the client needs.”
OCISO transitioned to phone and video counselling quickly and continued to support OCISO’s clients. ”Providing mental health supports to immigrants and refugees during this time of uncertainty is even more heightened than before as many are experiencing additional pressures due to social and economic consequences of COVID-19,” added Patricia. “As we move forward transitioning to our new normal, the Counselling Program, as always, will adapt and ensure we are there for our clients.”
In the first few days of teleworking, there was a flurry of activity. The clinical counselling team had a series of teleconference meetings. They learned how to use different platforms and participated in online training provided by mental health practitioners who have been delivering remote counselling for years. Information on various workshops was shared among team members. New secure cellular phones and laptops were provided by OCISO.
Maryana and her colleagues contacted each of their clients by phone to explain her availability to meet by phone or secure Zoom teleconference. She has 62 active clients.
Now, two months later, with working from home as the “new normal”, in some ways it is easier for Maryana’s clients to connect with her. “They can simply do the call from home, which in some ways makes us more accessible,” explains Maryana.
“We have also set the boundaries in a friendly, firm way,” adds Maryana. “I have one appointment with a client each month and still work from nine to five each day. I work on determining the structure of the call and ensuring that the client’s location is private to ensure their safety and confidentiality.”
There is also a new, informed consent, verbal or written to do the counselling session, and the session cannot be recorded. Maryana always dresses professionally for the video calls.
“The transition at the beginning was difficult, but over time we have gotten used to this new way of working,” says Maryana. She meets virtually with each client for 45 minutes, then asks them to practice a 15 minute self-care activity at the end of the session, to regulate their emotion. “It could be looking out the window, describing what they are seeing or what they like. Some clients may like to do something as simple as drinking a smoothie.”
For family counselling, there are considerations for clients who have young children at home. The counsellor may meet with each parent separately, so the other one can look after their children. Sometimes it’s a matter of updating each person at the next session. Sessions can be split into a separate half hour for each spouse.
“The nicest thing is that each member of a family continues to help each other and play a role in their sessions,” adds Maryana. “Our approach at OCISO is to empower our clients. We are working towards growth, healing, raising self-esteem and self-acceptance.”
“My clients are very worried about what everything will be like when we return from self-isolation,” says Maryana. “I am frank with them, but also try to calm their worries. For some being inside may feel like a prison, so I suggest they walk outside and to remember that they are free.” There is stark realization that we will likely never go back to how things were before COVID-19.
She also suggests activities that they can do with their children and tells them about government COVID-19 support programs. “I try to become a source of information and joy in difficult times,” explains Maryana.
This transition to the new reality of providing counselling remotely has worked better than Maryana had originally thought. The way she works has changed, but the level of caring has not.
In this time of uncertainty, OCISO’s clinical counsellors continue to provide newcomers with mental health services remotely in nine languages.