Mission Possible: Moving in-person counselling to a virtual world
March 26, 2021
A year ago, the therapy and crisis counselling teams at Eastside Community Mental Health Services (formerly Eastside Family Centre and the Community Resource Team) faced a daunting task.
An immediate overhaul of a service delivery model that was 30 years in the making was needed- because of something called COVID-19.
Wood’s Homes has, since 1990, offered walk-in, no-cost single session therapy to Calgarians. And the Community Resource Team has been the only service in the city offering immediate, mobile in-home crisis support for families since 1987.
But last March, because of the pandemic, the phone became the service delivery of choice for both the therapy and crisis counselling teams. Single-session therapy began over the phone – or virtually – rather than in-person and by appointment - something that had never happened before ‘at the walk-in’.
And over the past three decades, technology played a small role in the provision of these services. Clients would simply walk into our Eastside Family Centre in Calgary’s Marlborough community, fill out the necessary paper forms using a pen and wait to speak with someone in person. The counsellors and therapists would talk with people, ask questions, validate their mental health challenges, listen to their worries, etc.
Our Community Resource Team (CRT) would ask questions about a family’s troubles over the phone, and then would drive to their home to provide support.
Technology at Eastside was used to search and file client information in an online database and sometimes ask Google for help with referrals. CRT adopted technology back in 2013 with the implementation of counselling by text, followed soon by LiveChat and eTherapy provided by the therapists at Eastside.
So, as COVID-19 brought about a new reality, and with in-person sessions no longer available, it was all hands on deck as the counselling and therapy teams provided a new virtual first contact for clients who would have typically walked into our office. It was then that Eastside Family Centre and the Community Resource Team merged. Eastside Community Mental Health Services was launched early last fall with one number – 403-299-9699.
Professional crisis counsellors now answered client’s calls and navigated clients to the service that best fit their needs – a therapy session, family crisis mediation or referral.
But there was still one problem – how to connect as a multi-disciplinary team to brainstorm ways to help families with their challenges. How to bring several perspectives to the client’s issue virtually, as opposed to the way we used to by huddling together in person. And how to remain connected in order to debrief after each session or visit?
The program relied heavily on staff who had experience connecting with colleagues, families and youth across the country. Prior to COVID-19, Wood’s Homes had been using a virtual platform called WebEx Our agency’s IT Department was quickly inundated with requests to upload WebEx to our laptops and tablets. And because of this virtual platform, we are able to preserve our service excellence. The platform was able to maintain our unique multi-disciplinary team approach with contributions from social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, family therapists, consultants and masters level counselling and social work students and medical residents.
Below is a screen shot of what the therapy team looks like in this unprecedented time. The Main Meeting room of our virtual platform takes the place of our main therapist meeting room. And Breakout Sessions are now our session rooms used to ‘meet’ with clients over the phone.
The team mixes fun and laughter with serious contemplation and clinical introspection. Although it might sound silly, a fun part of the day is logging onto the daily WebEx meeting looking to see what the daily coordinator has named the Breakout Sessions. Old TV shows, beaches around the world we want to visit when we can, favorite band names, and even our favorite therapists have made their appearances over this past year. We all keep in mind we are all managing worries and situations about the pandemic while supporting Wood’s Homes clients. Bringing some levity to each day is essential.
Over the past few months, the Eastside Therapy Team was able to more than double the number of monthly sessions for families and youth since the beginning of the pandemic. Increasing from 74 sessions in April last year to 166 sessions in November – over the phone and via video. Clients report near 90% satisfaction for the new virtual services.
The therapists and counsellors of Eastside are listening to the stories of families and youth from all quadrants of the city and across the province, from all socio-economic levels, all cultures and all ages. And this support will continue as we all thrive, be well, and cope in this unprecedented time.
Without the flexibility and commitment of all staff the change to virtual services would not have been successful.