Shorter wait times part of ‘barrier free counselling’

Pearl Lorentzen
Lakeside Leader

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the top concerns for Albertans were isolation, access to mental health support and services, challenges to mental health, and anxiety, says a ‘COVID Report’ by Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) Alberta Division. In the study, 47.7 per cent of people surveyed lived in rural areas.

“We believe counselling is for anybody and everybody,” says Byron Chan, co-CEO of Catholic Family Service (CFS). It isn’t just for when people have an emotional or mental crisis, but a part of overall health, just like a dental appointment. During the pandemic, “no one has been immune” to the stress and pressure of the pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has raised many challenges, but technology is also allowing partnerships that previously would have seemed unlikely. In June 2020, a Rapid Access Counselling Program out of Calgary went province-wide.

One of the groups which is making use of this innovative program is the Northwest Central FASD Network, which serves Slave Lake, Wabasca-Desmarais, Swan Hills, Kinuso, Sawridge First Nation, Swan River First Nation, Loon River First Nation, Peerless and Trout First Nation and communities southwest to Jasper.

“Many of our individuals also have a secondary diagnosis of poor mental health,” says Donna Kristiansen, program manager of Northwest Central FASD Network. Wait times for appointments can be a challenge. Many forget appointments which are a few weeks in the future.

Rapid Access Counselling Program is the brainchild of CFS in Calgary.

CFS was established 64 years ago with the goal of “barrier free counselling,” says Chan. A few years ago, CFS noticed that it had a three-to-four-month wait list. Also, often people made the most progress in their early sessions, so CFS revamped its model. The new model is ‘a single-session model’ with people booking one 75 minute appointment with a counsellor. This doesn’t go deep instead; it is focused on identifying and designing strategies to alleviate a current issue. People can book as many sessions as they need.

Chan says Rapid Access guarantees an appointment in three business days, but sometimes people can get an appointment the next day or even that afternoon.

The program started in Calgary in 2018-19, says Chan. Then in June 2020, CFS received a provincial COVID-19 grant to make the project province-wide. This reduces “geographic barriers.”

The counselling is done by phone or video chat.

Access to technology can be another barrier to psychological care.

“If they (FASD clients) are able to keep a phone, we can help with minutes,” says Kristiansen. Prior to the pandemic many of the FASD clients had connections with their community through drop-in centres, Native Friendship Centres, etc. However, with these closed many have lost this connection, which is very difficult.

As well as having their mentors connect clients with Rapid Access, the FASD Network also provided some training to CFS counsellors about working with people with FASD.

FASD stands for Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.

Not everyone is impacted the same, says Kristiansen. But it is difficult to get an FASD diagnosis, so anyone who has one has been severely impacted. For example, an 18-year-old, might read close to their age, speak better, but have the financial skills of a seven-year-old.

FASD is a “whole body disorder,” says Kristiansen. It impacts whatever is developing when the biological mother drinks alcohol. With this in mind, FASD assessments are multidisciplinary. They include a physician, psychologist, and speech pathologist (children) or occupational therapist (adults).

In Slave Lake, the FASD Network partner is WJS Canada.

“It’s (Rapid Access) another resource that is so beneficial, especially during this time,” says Kristiansen.

Chan hopes that the project will help “blow the doors off of the stigma around mental health.”

Anyone in Alberta can sign up for a Rapid Access appointment at

Payment is based on what a person feels they can afford, says Chan. It is on the honour system.

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