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To some, our “new normal” that has taken hold since lockdown measures were implemented mid-late March feels like it has stretched on much longer than the calendar shows.  I echo those sentiments, in reflecting upon the shift within my role at Reception House and the means in which I can provide mental health support to clients. 

Much of my time is now spent in the virtual world, and many of us are thankful for the gift of video chats.  I connect at regular intervals with clients I was supporting prior to the virus, or clients that I am now supporting in exploring our “new normal”.  In exploring the impacts of the virus upon clients’ day-to-day experiences, I practice from a trauma-informed lens and work to sit with clients in their uncomfortability and insecurities, and help them to explore what coping strategies and resilience they already possess. 

For clients experiencing more severe mental health needs, I work to connect them or continue their connection with external mental health resources in the community, while maintaining contact and continuing to be in the clients circle of care.  Our agency has worked to strengthen our team operations and mentality in the time of COVID-19, resulting in Case Managers checking in with clients on a routine basis, and flagging emerging mental health needs to myself.  Through this model, we are striving to ensure that if clients feel safe and comfortable to share a mental health need, we work collaboratively to see that this need does not fall through the cracks.         

Each client has individual mental health needs; however, we are noticing some prominent trends amongst Government-Assisted Refugees.  One of the top concerns for clients is the exacerbation of isolation that the virus has created for them.  Many have compared the current situation of being confined to their homes as akin to being back in jail. 

These kinds of connections between situations speak to the depth of some clients’ trauma, and the risk of the current situation leading to re-traumatization for some.  Additionally, it is known that experiences of trauma reduces an individual’s ability to tolerate uncertainty.  Thus, the current situation’s interruption to daily routines, environment of ever-changing information and unknown end date can serve as a trigger to clients’ trauma experiences. 

Some clients are faced with the reality of too many mental health needs emerging at once, resulting in some clients choosing to forgo mental health treatment for pre-existing needs so that they can instead focus upon managing their mental health during the crisis of COVID-19.  As access to services has been restricted for all of us, this population faces additional risks and requires additional mental health support during these uncertain times.  As the duration of the crisis continues, mental health concerns for some clients will intensify and negatively impact their ongoing settlement process, potentially creating implications for clients well after the virus has subsided.       

My greatest personal challenge is that of not being able to connect with clients in person.  Connection over the phone greatly impacts rapport and relationship building.  Much of human communication is done through non-verbal expression, and working through telecommunications makes it so you are missing some of the puzzle pieces.  As governments and regulatory bodies scramble to create best practices for those of us working through COVID-19, there is lots of confusion and ambiguity. The current situation brings up many ethical questions about what it means to “walk with clients” when we are so far apart. 

Sam Geisler
Refugee Wellness Advocate