Community Counselling Services in Hay River has undergone drastic changes in the last few months, but, according to director of community and continuing care Joletta Larocque, it has come out stronger on the other side.
“This is a positive thing for the community,” she said. “Before, we were doing supportive counselling and psychological education, whereas now we are treating the underlying conditions.”
Last October, the Hay River Health and Social Services Authority decided to bring the counselling services standards in line with the rest of the NWT and require staff to have at least a master’s degree in the field.
That decision proved to be controversial when the four existing staff members left the office despite being offered positions that fit their experience and professional accreditations, said Larocque.
Since then, the authority has hired six counsellors – three mental health and addictions counsellors with at least master’s degrees and two community wellness workers, along with Sue MacKay, a clinical supervisor. Of the six, four were northern hires, including two from Hay River.
“It’s really fortunate that we managed to hire locally as much as possible,” said Larocque. “They share a culture and it helps them provide a better service.”
MacKay is also no stranger to the North, having worked most recently in Lutsel K’e before moving to Hay River.
“This is the staffing model that is recommended and that we’ve been moving towards in the territory for a few years now,” she said. “I’m really proud of this new team, how they work together and are working on more outreach programming.”
Last fall, the primary concerns for most residents, whether they were receiving counselling or not, were the long waiting list to get an appointment and the manner in which clients were transferred to other professionals when the ones they had been seeing regularly left. While Larocque did concede there was a longer waiting list – approximately 100 people – in January and February, that same list was between 60 and 80 people in the months before. It started dropping as of March when counsellors were hired full time and fell to zero in April.
“There is currently no waitlist for addictions or mental health counselling,” she said.
MacKay added that all new clients, whether recommended by a doctor or self-referred, are seen within about a week.
As for the transfer of patients, Larocque maintained the office did the best it could to serve as many as possible, but some choices had to be made to prioritize groups like hospital patients and those in counselling who were most at risk.
“Termination of counselling can be difficult,” said MacKay. “But there are nice ways to do it so the client doesn’t feel abandoned.”
Larocque said that the authority was bound by the terms of the collective agreement and, while the decision to switch staffing models no doubt had an impact on the community, it was hardly something on which they could hold community consultations.
“Each counsellor has their own ethics in how they terminate a client relationship,” she said. “We guide it, but we’re not in the room with them.”
Georgina Fabian was one of the individuals whose case was transferred with what she felt at the time was little care. But now she is pleased with the results of the changes and said she thinks the new staff members are far more effective at treating underlying trauma than their predecessors.
“When I was going through a difficult time, there was no one there for me,” said Fabian of the transition period last fall. “I had to go through four people all over the territory to speak to someone in town. But now, these people they hired have more experience and the person I’m dealing with knows how to deal with trauma.”
Fabian said there was a lack of preparation for those whose counselling appointments would be suspended until more staff could be brought in and that she was informed she would no longer be seeing her counsellor at their last meeting. But she said she understands why the staffing changes had to be made.
“Before, when we came for sessions, they would just let us ramble on and on, sort of avoiding the real problem sometimes,” she said. “The lady I’m with now, she asks me questions, steers me in a direction, and gives me something to think about afterwards, like homework.”
According to MacKay, the new staff members have hit the ground running. They have already begun finding their niches in community outreach projects and areas in which they prefer to work.
“They all have so many different talents and we plan on fully utilizing all of them,” she said, adding that the missing piece in service has been therapy for people diagnosed with a chronic disease like diabetes, which one of the new counsellors is happy to take on. “From a trauma program for teens that’s morphing into having more adults and the diabetes counselling and everything else, we have more going on now than before.”
— Sarah Ladik