An Open Door to a Listening Ear

A new grant from Edmonton Community Foundation addresses a growing demand and increased wait times for services at the YWCA Counselling Centre, which helps survivors of violence heal and rebuild

At the turn of the hour, it’s standing room only in the reception area of the YWCA Counselling Centre in downtown Edmonton as clients wait for their appointments to begin. Within minutes, the seats empty one-by-one as each client’s psychologist ushers them through the maze-like office space to counselling rooms in the back. Here, they are safe to share the darkest parts of their histories, including experiences with domestic abuse, sexual assault, and even human trafficking.

“One of our areas of expertise is in domestic violence and trauma,” says Ashley Lim, a registered psychologist and Director of the YWCA’s counselling services. A large proportion of the centre’s clients struggle with PTSD and are involved with the court system (most as victims, not perpetrators of crimes). The average client is 33 years old and female (women made up 87% of the clientele in 2017), but Lim says the YWCA’s clientele is diverse and includes youth (15%), immigrants (1%), and Indigenous people (11%). A large proportion of clients are LGBTQ (14%) and many have disabilities (18%).

Lim says that most of the centre’s clients have struggled not only to find counselling they can afford, but counsellors who understand trauma. Many have grown frustrated with the search and exhausted by re-telling their story again and again. “It’s not uncommon that we’re their last option,” she says. Unlike other services in Edmonton, the YWCA offers counsellors with special training  in trauma treatment for children and adults, and provides no- or low-cost therapy for as long as clients need it. “We don’t put a limit on how long the healing is going to take because we don’t know that and they don’t know that,” Lim says. “It’s how the process unfolds.” Most people attend eight or nine sessions, but some clients come for years. And even when a client has been discharged, they’re always free to come back whenever they need support, whether for individual counselling — the bulk of the centre’s services — group therapy, educational workshops, family therapy, or play therapy for their children.

With no comparable resources in Edmonton, and rising rates of domestic abuse and sexual assault in our community, the YWCA has seen the demand for its counselling services rise steadily in recent years. In 2017, the centre saw a 23% increase in appointments and a 26% increase in the number of people accessing it. Of the 3,800 counselling sessions provided that year, 99% were fully or partially subsidized and the number of clients unable to pay anything at all rose 92% from the previous year.

At the moment, the wait list is at least three months for most clients, although those in the most vulnerable situations are moved up the list, and generally wait about a month. “The maximum wait should be no more than two weeks,” says Lim, noting that after that time, victims of violence are more likely to have moved beyond the initial crises that motivated them to reach out, but they remain in the abusive situation.

In the past, Lim and her colleagues managed to whittle the wait list down to zero a couple of times each year, but this hasn’t happened for two years despite the YWCA’s best efforts.

Lim explains that frontline staff have been working frantically to shorten the wait list: “I’m concerned about how long my staff can maintain this pace.”

But a new grant from Edmonton Community Foundation could change everything for the counselling centre’s staff and clients. Over the next three years, the YWCA will receive $75,000 per year to partially fund a PhD-level counselling psychologist (the full cost of the position and overhead is $125,000) who will not only take on their own caseload, but will allow the centre, which is a teaching facility, to accept two to four additional master’s students and PhD student interns who will also treat clients. All told, the new position will increase the YWCA’s capacity for counselling by 150%.

“This grant is transformational for us. It’s the right grant at the right time,” says YWCA Edmonton CEO Jacqueline Foord. “The fact of the matter is, over the last few years, the number of calls to EPS reporting domestic violence has gone up. The number of sexual assaults has also gone up. The work we do with victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault is needed today more than ever.”

Not only will the grant allow the YWCA to shorten its wait list and serve more clients, it will ease the pressure on other mental health services in the city that are also feeling the strain. And, since the YWCA is a teaching facility, hiring a PhD trauma specialist will ultimately increase the number of psychologists in the community who have the training to work with victims of violence. “It moves beyond the work of the YWCA,” says Foord. “It impacts the health of our entire city.”

Listen to ECF’s interview with Amber Neimeier about the YWCA’s Counseling Program on The Well-Endowed Podcast.