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Distress Centre Calgary / 50 Stories  / 50 Stories Part 20: You Just Felt Honoured – Counselling in the ’90s

50 Stories Part 20: You Just Felt Honoured – Counselling in the ’90s

Counselling and public education continued to be a significant part of the Distress Centre/Drug Centre’s (DC/DC) services. Fred Burns was Clinical Supervisor, and Suzanne Rosebrugh the Drug Counsellor. Along with five crisis counsellors they saw a variety of clients, usually within the week of them calling the crisis line. 1991 recorded 3900 hours of counselling offered, with 25% of a counsellor’s time spent in support of volunteers and 20% in public education. 

From a 1994 newspaper.

Suzanne describes her job:

“I became the adult drug counsellor, and the person who would be in contact with AADAC, keeping us informed about drugs in the city and addiction. We all had to take, and were fortunate to take, the AADAC training, including a residential training, where you were in a treatment centre learning about how to deal with addictions. There were clients there, and you ate with them, and you interacted with them.

“David Kirby, now clinical supervisor, was in my first group of volunteers that I supervised. You read all their call card comments and said yeah or nay if a volunteer was capable of being on the line. I used to make it a point to go into the phone room when I came in, in the morning, and when I left at night, to say hello. It was a way for me to remember why we did what we did.”

''I used to make it a point to go into the phone room when I came in, in the morning, and when I left at night, to say hello. It was a way for me to remember why we did what we did.'' - Suzanne Rosebrugh

Emergency counselling

Although the wait time for counselling was less than a week in 1992, two emergency slots a day were added for people needing urgent help. Relationships, abuse/violence, anxiety and parent/child relationships were the top concerns. By 1994, 1542 clients were seen through this emergency access, and a full-time emergency position was created.

Peggy Voth held that role:

“I remember the first client I saw, the first week I was there as the emergency counsellor. This man came in very suicidal, he had a plan that made sense, had things all laid out. He had a family, but felt he was more of a burden to them than his death would be.  He seemed so on the brink. There were just some terribly tough cases and it was quite an initiation into the counselling world.

It was not a good idea to have one person doing all the emergency stuff. That lasted just for that year.  After that, everybody had one spot open for emergencies every day so it got shared. My portfolio was now suicide, along with general counselling. My responsibility was to stay on top of information and report at the weekly staff meeting to bring everybody else up to speed.”

''I remember the first client I saw, the first week I was there as the emergency counsellor. This man came in very suicidal, he had a plan that made sense, had things all laid out. He had a family, but felt he was more of a burden to them than his death would be. He seemed so on the brink. There were just some terribly tough cases and it was quite an initiation into the counselling world.'' - Peggy Voth

Group counselling

For a few years, the Centre took on more group work: anger management for males in collaboration with the YW; ADOPT a School with Calgary Family Services; and counselling staff at Langevin School once a week running a group for 12-year-old girls are just a few examples.  Peggy remembers the work:

Counselling data from the 1995 Annual Report.

“I ran my first gambling addiction groups, and drug addiction groups. There was a period of time where it seemed like there was always some group going on. We rotated facilitating the groups.  I also did some trainings with people who were becoming foster parents for the first time. I know we ran anger management groups for men that were mandated to attend.”

Monitoring call cards, tracking data, and screening clients before they met with a counsellor became the full-time job of the intake worker Joan Roy, later to become Distress Centre’s ED.  Blair Collins recalls:

“Joan was the intake person, reading call cards, giving feedback, and scheduling. I had a group of my own volunteers. Joan would give us our volunteers’ call cards. We would read them along with her comments, make additional comments, and on a regular basis we met with our volunteers to go over any issue they might be struggling with,  and/or congratulate them on a job well done. It was a way to build community and connection between staff and volunteers. There was always a focus on not only supporting them but appreciating them for the incredible amount of time they gave, and the skills they had developed.”

''There was always a focus on not only supporting them but appreciating them for the incredible amount of time they gave, and the skills they had developed.'' - Blair Collins

This did not mean that counsellors loved doing call cards. As Paul Jerry reports:

“The computer call cards, I just hated those. Volunteers would fill them out, and we would have to rotate every morning and sit and read the cards and provide feedback to the volunteers to improve their performance.  If there was a suicide call or something that did not go well, you really wanted to give some support to the volunteer. Otherwise the volunteer would walk away thinking they did something wrong and feel horrible.

“As counsellors we had to fill them out for our contacts. The people that weren’t so bright would wait until the end of the month to fill out 30 days of contact cards. That didn’t work.”

Counselling data from the 1999 Annual Report.

Focusing on crisis counselling and developing decision trees

By 1997/8, the DC/DC was no longer doing long-term drug or gambling counselling or groups, just crisis counselling. Top client issues were relationships and emotional health. Counselling was offered in Vietnamese, Polish, Russian and Mandarin, based on the skills of the counsellors. Staff were in Forest Lawn High School two half days a week, and facilitated a Futures program at Lord Beaverbrook regarding substance abuse. There was a 15% increase in public education presentations, mostly drugs, gambling and crisis resolution.

1999 brought two significant innovations, both part of the counselling work. In order to guide volunteers through their increasingly complex work, Joan Roy and Christine Berry developed intricate Decision Trees for use as they worked through issues with clients. Christine explains:

“They were tough to create, very complex but once they were usable, they were great. We were forced to decide ‘if this, then that,’ because it was never just only about domestic violence for example, it was also about drinking, about gambling, all these other things. Joan and I would stand with these huge pieces of paper and coloured pen repeating ‘if this, then that.’ I remember later on in my career phoning the DC and asking if they had a Decision Tree for something in particular. At that point the ‘if then’ model was integrated into their computer system and it was still in use.”

Introducing the Instrumental Needs Fund

The second advancement was the movement of the Instrumental Needs Fund (INF) for emergency financial assistance to counselling. Initially it had been part of the Crisis Pilot Project (CPP, a future story) and administered by Joan Roy. Initial funding was provided by Burns Memorial Fund and Husky Energy.  As Suzanne explains:

From our summer newsletter in 1996.

“What a godsend that was. Barb (ED) identified that we needed money for things that were really important to clients but weren’t covered anywhere. I remember this young couple with a baby. The man had gained employment as a labourer, but he needed steel-toed boots and he couldn’t afford them. If he didn’t have them, he could not get the job. The counsellor would pass it on to the Instrumental Needs person so he could get the financial support to buy them.

“Some counsellors really objected to that. They would say I am here to counsel I am not a welfare worker. Those would be the ones that ended up not staying. That was not acceptable in the agency. We were there to attend to people’s needs, if they were in crisis, and if we could do this, then maybe the crisis diminishes, or we give them some stability.

“There was a limit on how much they could have and how many times they could access it. No one else was doing that service, not for the working poor. It was a good way of controlling that the money did not go to something else.  It was such a phenomenal resource.”

Paul Jerry offers the last word on ’90s counselling for this story: “With clients generally, you did not know what happened. You just felt honoured that someone would come in and share their distress with you. You saw an awful lot of distress. It was the best training you could ever have.”

Distress Centre is sharing a story every Tuesday in 2020 for 50 weeks to celebrate our 50th Anniversary. We hope you will join us on this journey. All stories can be found here.

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