Clinical Services poised to help in challenging times

The word “unprecedented” is getting a lot of use in 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic and its attendant effects continue to impact the entire globe. Counseling psychology doctoral student Larissa Brosinsky says there’s a secondary impact that likewise has no parallel: a “mental health pandemic” brought about by unrelieved worry, uncertainty and isolation as jurisdictions strive to bring the disease under control.

“There’s a lot of anxiety and depression and feelings of isolation that people are dealing with,” Brosinsky says. “A big part of coping with these concerns is social support, getting out and engaging in activities you enjoy, but with current restrictions and people’s comfort levels with engaging in those activities, we’re seeing that people have limited coping strategies available to them right now.”

For this reason, many people are considering psychological counseling for the first time in their lives. As a provisional registered psychologist and senior associate clinician in the Faculty of Education’s Clinical Services division, Brosinsky encourages people to seek the help they need.

“These are unusual times and they are trying on people in so many ways they’ve never been tried before, emotionally or socially or spiritually. I think people should try to have some self-compassion that they are in a strange place and time right now, and if they’re struggling to handle it it’s absolutely understandable. Talking to someone about it can really help with that struggle and to feel like things are more stable again.”

A long history of helping people

The clinic, in various forms and locations, actually predates the existence of the Faculty of Education and has been providing accessible mental health supports and assessments to clients both within and outside the campus community for 90 years. Counseling and assessments at the clinic are a fraction of the cost charged by community-based practitioners, and a recent generous donation has made it possible for Clinical Services to waive fees for some low-income clients.

“We have clients as young as four all the way up to seniors, and the issues range dramatically from typical mental health issues like depression and anxiety to other kinds of challenges in living like traumatic experiences, personality issues, employment issues,” says registered psychologist and clinical supervisor Dr. Kevin Wallace. “We get a lot of families through the clinic, we do couples therapy—it’s across the range of issues we typically see in counseling.”

Wallace adds the families have come from all over Alberta to access the clinic’s low-cost assessments, which are used to identify learning disabilities and other psychoeducational issues.

Clinical Services also plays an important role in preparing doctoral students in the Counseling Psychology and School and Clinical Child Psychology programs for their careers by providing internships to help complete the 1,600 hours of supervised work experience required to become a registered psychologist in Alberta. Master’s students who work in the clinic can register as provisional psychologists in the province after they’ve obtained their degree.

“We provide the students with space for training so they have quick and easy access to supports—senior students, supervisors and instructors—while they’re learning,” Wallace says, noting that doctoral students are trained to supervise master’s students, who begin seeing clients almost from the very beginning of their program.

“I think our supervisors do a good job of being scientist-practitioners, coming from the academic side but being involved with clients themselves,” says School and Clinical Child Psychology doctoral student Nicol Patricny. “That’s a really valuable aspect of the internship.”

Making mental hygiene part of the routine

Owing to the onset of the pandemic, students are getting a grounding in serving clientele remotely, which was not previously a requirement of either program. Clinical Services was forced to transition almost overnight to caring for its clientele on virtual platforms, but with the intake of new clients starting in the fall, Wallace says he and his students have had new challenges to meet to ensure the privacy, security and integrity of their processes.

“Back in the spring we just had to do whatever we could to get things rolling because we had an ethical duty for continuity of care, we had to keep helping our people,” Wallace says. “But starting with new people is a different challenge—It’s not just about having good video security, but good electronic records management.”

Still, he adds, the necessity of creating protocols around the secure delivery of telehealth and learning how to work with clients virtually has demonstrated its potential for reaching more people who need the clinic’s services, even in locations remote from the University of Alberta campus.

Brosinsky says adapting to the demands of the pandemic is taking some research and creative thinking, especially in conducting virtual assessments of people with mild traumatic brain injuries which is an additional part of her internship with a community-based healthcare provider. If there’s an upside to the current situation, she says, it may be that people who wouldn’t otherwise have sought out mental health supports are recognizing their potential benefits in maintaining overall health and wellness.

“It should be normalized to go in for a routine mental health check-up. It doesn’t mean you have to have gone through trauma and are at your wit’s end. I have clients who call it a mental health tune-up—they pop in and talk about their stresses and they’re good for another few months. If people could see it that way, I think it would be really beneficial.”

Feature image: Counseling psychology doctoral student Larissa Brosinsky says she hopes the coronavirus pandemic will prompt more people to include mental health check-ups as part of their overall health and wellness routine.