New drop in partnership offers counselling

Five city organizations have partnered to offer on-the-spot counselling services to Edmontonians

Kathleen Power sips her tea and smiles at the two volunteer therapists sitting beside her. “Ready to start?” she asks them, her finger poised on the mouse, ready to connect to WebEx, the software that will allow them to link the group to a session that’s about to take place across the city.

Today, the counselling sessions are being offered at the Boys and Girls Club Big Brothers Big Sisters (BGCBigs) in north Edmonton. The intern therapist at the counselling site answers the call and the camera on the other end of the call comes into focus, the group sees a preteen boy sitting across from the intern therapist’s desk. Having this technology allows the group to participate in the session and offer support to the boy without being there.

When we’re thinking about reaching people who are not now using traditional services, a single session drop-in service could take care of quite a few people.

– Rod Rode, executive director of The Family Centre

Kathleen is the clinical supervisor of Edmonton’s new single-session drop-in counselling program, run by The Family Centre and jointly sponsored by United Way of the Alberta Capital Region and the City of Edmonton. It seeks to serve the counselling needs of diverse populations scattered across the entire city, all while operating on a modest budget.

The Family Centre is working with four other organizations to provide a service that assists Edmontonians in different situations across various demographics, such as seniors, children, and new Canadians. Partnering with The Family Centre are BGCBigs, the Canadian Mental Health Association – Edmonton Region, the Edmonton John Howard Society and the Seniors Association of Greater Edmonton (SAGE). Together, they’re able to offer counselling services in six locations: in the west, north-west, east and downtown. The service is free, operates on a first-come, first-served basis and no referral is needed.

The program is a continuation of the service previously offered by The Support Network, which ended its drop-in counselling program in 2012 after fiscal pressures made it necessary to choose between continuing the drop-in service or bolstering its 24/7 Distress Line.

In June, United Way and the City of Edmonton sent out a request for proposals to create another drop-in counselling program to fill the growing need for these services in the community. They received dozens of creative applications, but it was The Family Centre’s vision of city-wide partnerships that really stood out. Jean Dalton, director of neighbourhood health and well-being for United Way, says the plan was appealing because of its potential to reach people who may otherwise not have been able to access – or who may not have even thought about accessing – traditional counselling services. “We thought it would be workable in our community because United Way and the City were looking at how to deliver services in different parts of Edmonton,” she says.

Rod Rode is executive director of The Family Centre. He says the five partnering organizations have collaborated in the past and share common values. “We did not have to do a lot of the important groundwork you have to do to establish a partnership,” he says. “That work was already done. We know and trust one another. We hit the ground running.”

It’s a rather serendipitous arrangement that will use each organization’s existing resources such as office space and administrative services, office supplies and advertising. The partnership, which is also largely volunteer-run, will keep costs down. 

Currently, drop-in counselling is available for three hours a week at six locations across the city, for a total of 18 hours, with increased hours to come as the program gets established. Rod says the service has two key benefits: increasing mental health service availability across the city, and attracting people who are not willing or able to access traditional counselling services. Rod cites research on stating the effectiveness of drop-in, single-session counselling, adding many clients could be served with a single session. “Fifty per cent of people who require counselling only need one or two sessions. When we’re thinking about reaching people who are not currently using traditional services, a single session drop-in service could take care of quite a few people,” he says, adding that drop-in sessions are a “critical piece” of the continuum of care. “Some people will need more counselling, but they can wait for that counselling appointment. The ones who need only one session will walk in, identify their most pressing issue and walk out with an action plan.”

Kathleen says the therapists use a strengths-based approach. “If we’re intentional as therapists and listening carefully to the client, we’re able to help the client look at their own strengths and coping mechanisms, and how their current problems can be solved using those resources.” She adds that clients are encouraged to take an active role in coming up with solutions. “It’s really important to empower the client that the solution is with them,” she says.

Rod speaks highly of the City of Edmonton’s Family and Community Support Services division and United Way, the drop-in counselling program’s funding partners. “An integrated approach by funding bodies makes administration and accountability easier and less costly,” he says, adding that the City and United Way don’t just send money; the two organizations play an important role in investigating, and meeting, the need for mental health services. “United Way and the City have been working actively with a large number of non-profit agencies to identify gaps in the continuum of mental health services in Edmonton. They have insight to offer regarding the nature and scope of the challenge that goes well beyond providing revenue.”

Robin Murray, executive director of the Edmonton John Howard Society, sees the partnership as a first step towards a more resilient community. “I believe we are just scratching the surface of what this collaboration will result in, and I’m very excited about where this is leading us,” he says.

One important aspect of single-session counselling is that it’s not meant to solve every problem. “We’re asking the client to be very specific about one issue for that day,” Kathleen says. There’s no limit to the amount of counselling sessions a client can attend and, in the three months since the program started, the team has already seen some repeat clients who’ve worked on one part of their issue and then come back to the service to explore another side.

Each of the patient-side counsellors are clinical interns studying for their masters or PhD degrees. They’re enrolled in an eight- or 10-month internship with The Family Centre and have diverse responsibilities: they work in schools and deliver traditional counselling as well as single-session counselling. Power is around for all of the drop-in hours and she, along with a team of three or four volunteer therapists, sits in on every session via WebEx, which is similar to Skype but encrypted for confidentiality.

Each session follows a similar structure. The intern therapist meets with the client, and together they discuss the problem. Throughout the session, the on-screen therapists are free to ask the client questions and then, at 40 minutes, there’s a break in which the group comes together to craft a message to the client. “We’re highlighting their strengths and their abilities to solve problems, and we’re also acknowledging the dilemmas they’re facing. We know it’s quite effective for clients to know that a team has listened, that there’s more than one person trying to help,” Kathleen says.

As of the beginning of December, just three months into its operation, the drop-in program has seen close to 50 clients, including children, seniors, immigrants, Aboriginal people and those living in poverty. Kathleen says offering the service through the different partner agencies is an effective way to help segments of society that would otherwise be difficult to reach. “Some clients would never think of a therapeutic relationship as a resource,” she says, adding that one of the drop-in service’s goals is to reach more men. “We’re still very socialized to think that men should have all the answers. They’re supposed to know how to fix things themselves,” she explains. “We see it as part of our work to soften some of the stress in their lives.”

This is where the multiple locations fit into the plan. As the partners outline in their proposal, some refugee and immigrant communities have people who came from traumatizing situations but are reluctant to come forward and admit they need help. “It takes patience to reach these people,” the partners wrote in their proposal. “Some people are more inclined to view the service as safe if located relatively nearby and in a familiar building.”

Rod says the goal is to increase the hours that drop-in counselling is available – the objective outlined in the proposal is to eventually offer 30 to 36 hours per week – but he emphasized the partners want to grow the program slowly and carefully to ensure it’s sustainable at all stages. For the first few weeks, advertising was minimal in order to give the partners, staff members and volunteers time to familiarize themselves with the new processes. Now, with the program’s website launch, they’re ready to present themselves to the city.

Kathleen says she’s already seen a lot of positive outcomes stemming from the drop-in counselling program and she’s excited to see where it will go. She has worked in counselling for 26 years, and for her, it’s seeing clients realize their own strengths that’s the most rewarding. “When clients come back to report their successes, we’re often quite struck with how they’ve taken their session. It wasn’t necessarily how we would have taken it, but because of their strength and resourcefulness they solve the problem in a novel way.”

Pillars of Society

Supporting Edmontonians’ mental health is a key aspect ]of eradicating poverty. In its Creating Pathways Out of Poverty report, United Way identified three focus areas: education (supporting early childhood development and high school graduation), income (supporting people to achieve financial independence) and wellness, of which mental health is a crucial aspect.

For more information on drop-in counselling visit