This is part of a series of stories profiling members of the Niagara Health team and the work they are doing as part of our response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Meet Sean Robb, a Registered Psychotherapist in our Outpatient Mental Health and Addictions program.
It wasn’t difficult for Sean Robb to adjust his interactions with patients to a more virtual platform as he was already using Ontario Telemedicine Network (OTN) for some of his work.
During the pandemic, many of Niagara Health’s Mental Health and Addictions outpatient programs have moved to OTN (videoconferencing) and telephone calls, rather than face-to-face appointments, to protect patients, staff and physicians.
As a Registered Psychotherapist, much of Sean’s work is with people living with complex mental health challenges. “I’ve noticed more calls and more people struggling,” says Sean. “Some individuals’ coping approaches involve being social. As our current situation doesn’t allow for physical connection, we need to tweak the coping strategy for our patients, and only then do we start to see some of the symptoms dissipate.”
Through all of this, Sean is also nearing completion of earning his PhD in Neuropsychology at Brock University.
How has your role changed during the pandemic?
Instead of meeting people in person, which is the typical approach, I was very fortunate that I already had an OTN account and was able to jump right in. OTN has been tremendously helpful and an imperative aspect in doing psychotherapy. There is something about being able to see a person and experience their body language. It is more convincing, supportive and validating. There are limitations for some of our patients who might not always have access to videoconferencing, in which case we use the phone. However, the ones that can use OTN seem to really benefit from psychotherapy the most. I’m also involved in supporting healthcare workers, in particular our NH staff during this difficult time. It was busy before, but it’s a different kind of busy now.
What is the most challenging part about working during the pandemic?
The biggest challenge is I really do love meeting with people in person and it’s different now that I’m spending most of my days in an office where I’m by myself. I’m missing that personal aspect of my work, even how much time I could connect with colleagues prior to the pandemic.
Describe working with your colleagues in Mental Health and Addictions.
My colleagues are a tremendous source of support. My colleagues are trying to build new platforms for how we conduct therapy, such as group therapy through OTN. Other colleagues are building the most optimal coping approaches based on research for our patients and staff during this unique type of environmental stressor. And some colleagues are placed in roles that they are not familiar with (because they have been redeployed to other areas of the hospital to support our response to COVID-19). It is very impressive how everyone is adjusting and managing those situations.
How has the pandemic impacted you personally?
Personally, I’m making the same adjustments as most people. I have family members who are at higher risk of getting COVID, as my mom is a ward clerk in the ICU at the St. Catharines Site. It is quite motivating that she is working during the pandemic in such a high-risk area. She is my source of inspiration and, of course, I’m concerned for her.
How do you unwind after a shift?
I am an avid cyclist and have been practising and getting in shape as preparation for the upcoming mountain bike season. At the same time as working, I’m a student, completing my PhD in Neuropsychology at Brock University. I’m just about to defend my PhD and have been surprised to find it a helpful distraction. It has also been helpful in guiding my patients in thinking about the brain as an impressive problem-solving machine. Our brains are built to problem-solve and if you don’t give it problems to solve, it will build problems for you in the form of anxiety. If you find things that are meaningful and purposeful, problem-solving activities will reduce stress.
Can you offer any tips/advice should someone come across someone in distress?
In general, before you work on the problem that a person is experiencing, you want to get them to a state where the brain can think effectively. At high levels of stress, our brains are more focused on survival in that moment, and the goal is to get that person back into an optimal state of thinking. That could include strategies around slowing down the breathing rate, putting your attention on your breathing, and on the immediate environment around you – typically referred to as mindfulness and grounding. What you’re trying to do is take the attention off of the threat or danger for a moment and let the system come back down and then you can actually problem-solve. People are incredible thinkers, but when they are overwhelmed, they don’t have access to that intellectual side of them and you have to work to get them back there.
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