12 June 2020

Support for the vulnerable doesn't stop when a pandemic hits

Jenny Kitchin, CEO of WCS

Woden Community Service CEO Jenny Kitchin. Photo: File.

The sudden and aggressive onset of the coronavirus pandemic rapidly altered the way we work with our clients at Woden Community Service. Most of our staff had to move to connecting with their clients through video conferencing or phone calls. While this worked for most of our clients, for a number of people it did not.

Leon, a young WCS client, lives with bipolar disorder, severe anxiety and has experienced a number of psychotic episodes.

At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic lockdown, he had a weekly phone meeting with his caseworker. After a couple of weeks, Leon began to find the interaction on the phone difficult as it triggered his anxiety. It was difficult for Leon to remember what was discussed in their conversations and he was unable to connect and engage with his caseworker.

Face-to-face contact was paramount for Leon. It is impossible to have the same rapport and dialogue with clients like Leon unless they feel safe. In turn, our workers, who know Leon well and have a good working relationship with him, became increasingly concerned worrying about what was happening. Leon wasn’t the only client experiencing this.

In our mental health services, many of our clients suffering from anxiety disorders have found their conditions worsening. For people in these situations, it is important to keep a connection with them, but some have chosen not to engage through online technology. Of the 138 participants using our psychosocial mental health programs, 16 per cent either had no access or no capacity to use online services, with a further 23 per cent lacking confidence to do so.

Another key group impacted by this coronavirus pandemic is families where children are at risk of abuse. Face-to-face contact is crucial to gain access into the family home to provide support and ensure the safety of children. If we cannot visit it makes it much easier for clients to withdraw from their worker. It is harder for workers to really see what is happening with a child in their home. This inevitably creates greater risks for children.

While many adolescents are more comfortable connecting online rather than in person, for some the face-to-face relationship with their worker is important for them. Since moving to online interactions, some young people have drifted away and are no longer engaging with their workers. This can make workers increasingly concerned and anxious as to what is happening with that young person.

So, how have we as an organisation responded to this?

We have constantly balanced the health risks to our workers with the vulnerability of our clients. We have carefully considered the needs of each client on a case-by-case basis. In serious cases of vulnerability, it has been more important for us to work face to face with a client while adhering to strict safety measures.

What will this look like as we return to meeting with clients face to face? We will certainly be trying as hard as we can to connect with clients who have drifted away from our service. We hope with perseverance and using every avenue possible, we will be successful.

This coronavirus pandemic has shown us new and different ways we can connect with our clients. It has highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of technology. Our biggest fear is that shifting to online client services has placed some vulnerable clients in situations of greater stress and risk. As we transition back into face-to-face contact and into a new way of life, we hope to pick up the pieces swiftly and continue to support our clients in the best way we can.

Whether it is food relief, mental health support, child, family and youth support or disability services, WCS offers a wide range of services to the Canberra community.

If you or someone you know is requiring support at this time, please call WCS on 6282 2644.

Original Article published by Woden Community Service on The RiotACT.

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