Asking for help when you need it can be difficult. But then to find out you must either fork over hundreds of dollars or wait years for that help, and it suddenly becomes entirely out of reach.
WoodGreen Community Services is changing that by bringing mental health support directly to the people who need it; no questions asked.
In collaboration with East Toronto Health Partners, WoodGreen has launched a program to offer free walk-in mental health counselling at a COVID-19 Outreach Centre in the city’s east end. Staff at the centres began noticing those coming in to get a COVID assessment or treatment were showing up with a ‘plethora’ of other issues that needed to be addressed, says Irina Sytcheva, Director of Mental Health, Addictions and Developmental Services at WoodGreen.
‘AS LOW BARRIER AS IT GETS’
As the largest provider of mental health services in east Toronto, WoodGreen was a natural choice to bring in its walk-in counselling model.
“It’s as low barrier as it gets,” says Sytcheva. “We don’t require a referral, we don’t need a health card, people can go by a pseudonym...they get the service that night and, if needed, they can always come back again.” There are no limits on the number of sessions and it’s entirely free.
Sessions run between an hour and an hour and a half and are staffed by registered professionals, either social workers or psychotherapists. Each has experience in counselling, has undergone a rigorous on-boarding process and screening. WoodGreen has more than 70 clinicians who volunteer their time as walk-in counsellors in addition to about 15 WoodGreen staff.
PANDEMIC FUELS FINANCIAL ANXIETY
They’re currently seeing anyone who comes into the COVID-19 Outreach Centre at Taylor-Massey (Crescent Town Health Centre, 4 Market Place, East York) on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings from 4:30 to 9 p.m. Sessions are virtual at the moment, but that should change to in-person next month. Until then, clients receive a private room and iPad and are connected with one of the walk-in counselling clinicians. Each clinician sees a maximum of two clients a night in order to avoid burnout. For those individuals who happen to come to the Covid Outreach Centre on other days, they can reserve a session for the next counselling night. Children under 12 need the permission of a parent/guardian, but anyone over 13 can come in on their own. If a client can’t conduct a session in English, with some advance notice WoodGreen can arrange for either a clinician who speaks that language or an interpreter.
As for what types of mental health needs the Walk-In Counselling program sees, it can range from grief and anxiety to depression, trauma and relationship issues, to immigration and employment concerns. But the pandemic has changed a lot.
“Interestingly enough, during COVID we have seen ‘financial concerns’ bumped up into our top five issues,” says Sytcheva.
PROVIDING HELP WHERE AND WHEN IT’S NEEDED
For many in the community, the walk-in counselling is their first introduction to the mental health care system. Sytcheva says rates for counselling in Toronto can range anywhere between $120 and more than $400 per session.
“Psychotherapy is so unaffordable,” she says. “Most of the people can’t afford it, especially in some of our priority neighbourhoods where many people are low income and balancing three or four precarious jobs just to maintain a roof over their head.”
Any free services, she says, have wait lists that can be years long, which can be as much of a barrier to access as finances. It’s precisely what WoodGreen is hoping to avoid with this free, walk-in counselling model.
“If you provide people the care that they need in the moment that they need it, we’re hopefully preventing a lot of more serious issues down the line.”