Five Questions with Vancouver Island Counselling Centre for Immigrants and Refugees (VICCIR)

Vancouver Island Counselling Centre for Immigrants and Refugees (VICCIR) was founded in 2015. Driven by the determination to create a safe haven for immigrants and refugees on Vancouver Island, co-founders Adrienne Carter and Linda McLagan began seeing a small number of clients, responding to the immediate need in their community. This drive helped shape a counselling program for immigrants and refugees that included counsellors and interpreters who were willing to work pro bono.

Carter and McLagan’s plans were altered by the fall 2015 announcement of the arrival of a wave of Syrian refugees to communities on Vancouver Island. The modest program lacked the capacity to provide more services to an increased population of children and adults struggling with immense trauma. However, with surprisingly little recruitment, counsellors and interpreters came forward to offer their services pro bono to the immigrant and refugee population.

Since then, VICCIR’s capacity has grown drastically. Over 40 professional counsellors and skilled interpreters now work with VICCIR. VICCIR offers a client-centered approach to therapy and provides a way for individuals and families to easily access integrated services in contrast to the often complicated and sometimes fragmented system of care. Additionally, all VICCIR counselors receive training in trauma counselling and interpreters receive training to enable them to become more professional as interpreters and also to work competently with counsellors.

In 2019, VICCIR received a Community Counselling Fund grant, and was able to begin paying counsellors and supervisors and increase their counselling capacity.

Adrienne Carter, co-founder and Director of Services and Rachel Davey, VICCIR’s Fundraiser, joined CAI to answer 5 questions related to the work of VICCIR.

Continue reading below to read the Q&A!

Adrienne Carter, co-founder and Director of Services of VICCIR

1. VICCIR has a unique staffing structure that allows you to meet the diverse linguistic and cultural needs of your clients. Can you tell us more about how that works?

VICCIR has developed a unique client-centred approach to its work and this is reflected in our staffing structure. Rather than having a small number of full-time counsellors, VICCIR is able to use the services of a larger number of counsellors who are all part time contractors. At any one time we have a team of 20 counsellors at present. Having a large number of counsellors enables us to assign more than one counsellor with a family. It also means our team of counsellors offer a range of therapeutic modalities and approaches. By having this structure, the client is assigned to a counsellor who is best suited to their needs rather than whoever is available.

In addition, each counsellor is connected with an interpreter, if the client requests or requires counselling in a language other than English. The counsellor and interpreter make up the support team and stay with the client throughout their healing journey. Currently we have 19 interpreters offering a range of different languages, and if a client needs counselling in a language for which we do not have an interpreter, we use our connections in the community to identify a suitable individual and then go through the process of training and orientation.

In response to the increasingly complex challenges faced by our clients due to the pandemic, VICCIR created the role of Social and Community Support Worker. This person assists with practical needs of client and coordinates our team of volunteers. VICCIR volunteers are assigned to individual clients to assist with English language or whatever extra support the client might need. We also use the services of a consultant psychiatrist who can be called on to provide an assessment or second opinion and prescribe medication as needed.

2. VICCIR has seen an increased demand for counselling services consistently through the pandemic. Are there ways that the Community Counselling Fund (CCF) grant helped you adapt to this increased demand?

Prior to receiving the CCF grant, all VICCIR counsellors offered their services pro bono. This amazing outpouring of support came as Canada accepted the first wave of refugees from Syria. However, having all our counsellors working pro bono brought some challenges, especially as demand for our services increased. So the CCF grant changed everything for us, even before the onset of the pandemic. What we experienced was a huge increase in demand for mental health support both from clients (existing, new and returning) and from the community at large. The ability to compensate counsellors and recruit new counsellors has enabled us to respond to the increase in demand without creating a long waiting list. We also saw an increase in clients from countries such as India, the Congo, Sudan, Russia, Korea and Vietnam. We did not have interpreters for these clients, so the funding enabled us to recruit, train and supervise new interpreters. The importance of training and supervision during the pandemic cannot be overstated. All of our clinical staff were experiencing their own challenges as a result of the pandemic, so it was even more important than usual to provide regular supervision and check ins, as well as specific training to deal with the issues that were arising. Having funding to support our supervisors as they supported our clinical staff made a huge difference. The additional funding to support technology costs that was made available also helped us to transition to fully online service with fewer concerns about the additional costs involved.

VICCIR Counsellors and Interpreters

3. How would you describe your client base and their needs? How have they changed, if at all, since you started this project?

Prior to the pandemic most VICCIR clients were Arabic-speaking refugees from the Middle East, especially Syria and North Africa. One of the many unfortunate side effects of the pandemic has been the freeze on international travel, meaning that not as many refugees were able to enter Canada as was expected. This has not only shifted our client base but has also put an additional intolerable strain on family members who are waiting to be reunited. Now, more than a year into the pandemic, our client base is made up of both refugees and immigrants who have been in Canada for several years. In addition, we have seen many clients returning for more therapy, a result, we believe, of the retraumatizing effect of the pandemic. At VICCIR we offer therapy to whole families, and we have seen an increase in demand as parents try to navigate the complexities of their children’s education during COVID-19. One result of this is that we created a series of parenting programs to provide support for parents and caregivers during the pandemic. We have also seen an increase in the complexity of the issues faced by our clients and an increase in referrals from organizations such as MCFD protection services. In addition to MCFD referrals, there has been a large increase in referrals from the various school districts.

Now that our services are online, we have also seen our geographic reach widen to other parts of BC outside of southern Vancouver Island, especially from smaller and more remote communities where services are lacking.

4. What are some structural issues that your clients face and where do you see VICCIR fitting in the continuum of care for them?

VICCIR removes the barriers to accessing mental health support for immigrants and refugees. The barriers are many – long waiting lists, inadequate interpretation, separating generations of a family receiving mental health support from different organizations that do not communicate with each other, long waiting times for testing, cost, lack of appropriate training for counsellors – the list goes on. In addition, refugees or immigrants with a particular immigration status are not always able to receive services. We accept any and all classifications as long as they are immigrants or refugees, no matter how long they have been in Canada. VICCIR fills the many gaps in the system so that refugees and immigrants are able to access the counselling they so urgently need. The structural issues that our clients face are never ‘only’ to do with their mental health. They are linked to challenges they face in their lives in the areas of housing, employment, education, legal difficulties, addictions, law enforcement and systemic racism and discrimination. VICCIR’s Social and Community Support Worker was hired to assist in these areas and refer clients to other organizations as needed. This has allowed our counsellors to spend more of their time providing counselling rather than practical support which was often the case before.

5. You recently implemented a Health Ambassador program. Can you tell us more about that?

We are currently in the process of implementing the Health Ambassador program collaborating with volunteers from the Leadership Victoria Community Action Program. The plan is to provide training to individuals from specific communities in Victoria and southern Vancouver Island who will be our ‘ambassadors’. They will assist in removing the stigma associated with mental health, by providing presentations and information within their communities. They may facilitate groups of women or men to talk about issues that their communities are facing and how we can best assist these communities. This will be a steppingstone for some to access counselling from VICCIR if they request it and will promote a better understanding of mental health in general in the communities.