August 18, 2010

Family Health Team offers counselling service

As published in The Erin Advocate

Access to counselling help has become quicker and simpler for patients of the East Wellington Family Health Team (EWFHT).

With new staff and a range of services, doctors can now refer people to local professionals for help with issues like grief, life transitions, drug and alcohol problems, conflicts at home or work, depression, stress, anxiety and chronic illness.

"People go to the doctor's office for everything else," said Kim Bell, Mental Health Worker and Program Lead with the team. "It's regular people with life issues that we are seeing."

She says if a condition is interfering with a person's ability to enjoy life, they can decide to view it as a something to be treated, not a weakness to be hidden. In fact, she has been impressed with the strength of many patients, in light of the stresses they have endured.

One in five people will personally experience a mental illness during their lifetime, but if the current trend continues, two-thirds of those will not seek help, said Bell.

She was previously a program manager with the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA). "Society does not view mental health like, for example, diabetes," she said. The stigma attached to these problems often serves to make them worse.

Mental illness can affect people in all age groups, regardless of their income level, education, cultural background or level of intelligence. The CMHA says about 8 per cent of adults will experience major depression at some time in their lives. Bipolar disorder and schizophrenia each affects about 1 per cent of Canadians. Suicide accounts for 24 per cent of all deaths among 15-24 year olds and 16 per cent among 25-44 year olds.

Counselling is available at EWFHT for individuals, families, and occasionally short-term groups, but only for patients of doctors on the team. Patients take an active role in the process, setting goals and making decisions about treatment. It is not a crisis service – urgent cases are referred to other agencies.

There is no waiting list, so getting the first appointment (day or evening) normally takes only from a few days to a few weeks. The service is funded by the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, so there are no costs to the patient. The health team approach is designed to provide more options for doctors and more local treatment for patients.

Michele Ross-Miller joined the team in February as a full-time mental health therapist, after working as a family counsellor in Guelph. I asked her what she finds satisfying in dealing with people facing major stress in their lives.

"There are a great variety of issues, and at times it is frustrating, but there is always something that people take away," she said. "People are often relieved that there is someone there to listen to them and understand. It makes a big difference in their lives, but change comes slowly."

Some people may need to see a psychiatrist, but this service is not offered at EWFHT, and a referral can take more than nine months, said Bell. In any case, a psychiatrist may not do the longer-term therapy or counselling. Often they do assessments and prescribe medication, but the patient remains primarily in the care of the family doctor and mental health workers.

EWFHT has started an initiative with the Ontario Telemedicine Network, using two-way video-conferencing. Each Friday, a doctor in Hamilton who specializes in geriatric psychiatry sets aside time to "see" patients in Erin – without long waits or travelling. They see each other on video screens and have a discussion, with local staff providing assistance. "Patients have responded positively," said Bell.

For people without a local doctor, publicly funded help is available through Trellis Mental Health and Developmental Services, with offices in Guelph, Orangeville, Fergus, Mount Forest and Kitchener. Go to, or to speak with an information and referral worker, call 519-821-3582. There are also various private counselling services, though these can be expensive if not covered by a group insurance plan.

Also offered by EWFHT, and open to everyone in the community, are workshops related to mental health. Go to for details on the Stop Worrying sessions to be held next March, which provide tips to help people understand and modify harmful worrying behaviour.

There is also an eight-week group program on Relaxation and Stress Management Skills Training, which can help in the self-regulation of headaches, muscle tension, insomnia and anxiety. It will be held on Monday nights in Erin starting October 18, and Tuesday nights in Rockwood starting January 4. Register on the website, or call 519-833-7576, ext. 224.