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IN IT TOGETHER: Supporting people with addictions during the pandemic

Posted Sep 24th, 2020

IN IT TOGETHER: Supporting people with addictions during the pandemic

Dan Stevenson could not have imagined a more unique way to begin a new role at Niagara Health.

Dan, an Addictions Counsellor with Niagara Health for 17 years, joined the team at our 264 Welland Ave. location in St. Catharines in late February. The location is shared between Niagara Health and Canadian Mental Health Association Niagara, with the two organizations providing mental health and addictions programs to the community.

Dan was just getting adjusted to his new position with the Rapid Access Addictions Medicine (RAAM) and the Out and About clinics when the pandemic hit a few weeks after his arrival.

To ensure the safety of staff and clients in the early months of the pandemic, Dan and others at the centre stayed connected with people mostly over the phone, rather than in-person visits. Over the past few months, Dan has gradually resumed face-to-face appointments, with safety precautions in place.

The RAAM is a clinic for people looking for help with substance use (alcohol and/or other drugs). The Out and About clinic provides opiate-replacement therapies such as methadone or suboxone to clients who have an opiate addiction.

During his career with Niagara Health, Dan has worked as an addictions counsellor at our New Port Centre in Port Colborne and with the Psychiatric Emergency Response Team based at the Emergency Department at the St. Catharines Site.

What is the role of an Addictions Counsellor?

We work with individuals who have substance-dependency issues. We help them with emotional and practical supports, and help get them connected with the appropriate services in the community and at Niagara Health. We also provide counselling, like coping strategies and cognitive behavior-type therapies.

What was the biggest challenge during the pandemic?

It was strange at times to come into an empty clinic. You go from 40 to 50 people a day to nobody coming in. We got into this line of work to see people. Talking to someone without seeing them is a big adjustment because body language and non-verbal cues are a really important part of the conversation. For some clients, COVID was difficult because coming to the clinic was also a social connection for them. They are so grateful to be able to come back to the clinic and see us in person.

What feedback did you receive about the telephone check-ins?

A lot of clients were thanking us for staying in contact. They knew it was a difficult situation, but they really appreciated that we put a plan in place to keep connected with them as much as possible. For most of them, it was a weekly connection, but we always reinforced with them that they could call any time if they needed to talk to us. They felt they were still part of the clinic and not isolated in dealing with COVID on their own. We were there for them and staying connected. Providing that emotional and practical support and ensuring they had their medications also helped to reduce emergency department visits.

Describe working with the team in the RAAM and Out and About clinics?

We have a good team. We work well together. We bounce things off of each other and we are supportive of each other. I felt welcomed as soon as I got here. I think COVID brought us together quicker. We needed to depend on each other to make sure we were providing that service to clients who we couldn’t see in person. Everyone has been very calm and comforting through the pandemic. I’m very proud to be part of the whole Niagara Health team.

How do you wind down after work?

I like to hit golf balls at the driving range. Hitting a bucket of balls allows me to focus on what I am doing there and it is an escape from work. I get in a game of golf when I can. I am also getting into gardening, so my backyard is a great place for me to hang out, regroup and re-energize. With COVID, if we don’t take care of ourselves, we’re not in a position to take care of other people. I’m lucky to have a very supportive family, my wife and two daughters. 

Learn more about addictions services Niagara Health provides here.

Niagara Health System