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Program Design, Development, and Quality

Creating Mental Health Supports for Kids in Isolated Communities

mental health counseling cover photo

I live in a small town.

Our county has about 3600 residents in the town proper, with another 7000 scattered throughout the County (a County which includes two First Nations reserves and two Metis settlements). We have two grocery stores, a few gas stations, four schools, a post office, some shops, plenty of industry and farming operations, and a pretty nice community centre for our size. If you’re looking for small-town Canadiana, look no further. We’ve got it all.

Only… we don’t.

Like any other isolated community, we have a health centre but not a full-fledged hospital; we have a free mental health clinic, but its resources are limited; and we have one or two private counsellors who run a fee-for-service practice, but the standard rate is $180/hour. For a town battling a slumping economy, those are big bucks to shell out when rent has to be paid for and food put on the table.

Like any other isolated community, our people struggle with similar issues that larger centres do: depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, addictions, family breakdown, bullying, domestic violence, human trafficking, grief and loss, and loneliness. While it’s certainly true that we can be lonely in the midst of thousands, geographic isolation has its own peculiar form of loneliness. When a crisis hits, there is no help for hundreds of miles. The closest hospital with a mental health ward is an hour and a half away; and the capital city is at least two hours away. If our local resources struggle, we all struggle.

More and more private counsellors are offering services via Skype or Google Hangout. Not everyone can afford fuel costs associated with driving to a needed support, but it’s either that or keep quiet. The wait time for the free mental health clinic at present is about two months. Some triage work is done, so people deemed in severe crisis are bumped to the top of the list, but that just makes the list longer for others needing someone to talk to.

Not everyone owns their own personal device to connect online.

Even if they do, not everyone can afford the data to maintain an online presence. Barrier upon Barrier upon barrier. How can after school programs assist families needing professional counselling?

Here are a few ideas that have seen some great success here:

  • Churches or larger denominations creating funds to pay for private therapists in order to subsidize counselling fees for low-income families
  • Creating private space for kids, parents and whole families to meet with accredited counsellors online at drop-in centres, hospitals or churches
  • Developing training teams for after-school care workers to learn “Mental Health First Aid”—signs to look for, immediate assistance to offer, and a sound plan to connect a child and that child’s family with a counsellor within a prompt space of time

Face-to-face counselling will always be the best.

But rural and isolated communities experience extreme gaps in service on a long-term basis. Creative approaches need to be brought forward. Developing a fund within your after-school program to assist families with mental and emotional support using online communication is a good way to strengthen the web. Creating safer spaces for families to ‘meet’ with their counsellors assures them that their needs are being taken seriously.

The more we can partner together to bring costs down for needed supports in remote locations, the stronger our communities will be. And, by extension, the stronger our children will be when they know there are supports out there to access.

For breakfast, I had Coconut Chia Seed Granola, a McIntosh apple, and a glass of water.

Author Profile: @erinthomas

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