Being home together: Helping families in Canada cope during the COVID-19 pandemic

Juliet Haynes, MSW, RSW is the Family Engagement and Experience Coordinator at The Royal in Ottawa, Canada where she is Vice-Chair of the Family Advisory Council. Krystal Jyl (KJ) Thomas, MSW, RSW is a social worker with the Community Mental Health Programme. The Royal is a mental health centre specialising in severe mental illness and recovery through inpatient, outpatient and community programmes located across the province of Ontario. In this post, Juliet and KJ describe virtual family groups providing information on COVID-19 and coping techniques.

Key messages: Innovations:
The difficult situation has fostered shared learning, mutual support and adaptation Virtual family support group covering safety, supporting from a distance, managing stress and coping with being home together full-time
Some families are adapting to a new normal and focusing on general coping strategies not specific to COVID-19 Screening for COVID-19 symptoms for clients conducted by clinicians at every contact
Look for opportunities to practice client and family centred care Monitoring food to make sure clients have access to regular meals

In our experience as clinical social workers working in hospital and community settings, we have observed a range of reactions and effects on mental health in regards to the pandemic. Stressors are arising with housing, accessing food, using public transportation, receiving loved ones back into family homes from care facilities, concerns for vulnerable clients with pre-existing health conditions and more. These serious concerns weigh heavily on those directly involved as well as those providing assistance. Understandably, these new challenges are having an effect of increased stress, anxiety and mental health issues. At the same time, experiencing community members coming together to tackle these problems head on is quite encouraging. Health care teams are working around the clock to develop plans to address and offer support.

The Royal has a forty year history of offering family therapy groups that have always been free and open to families of clients as well as the public. Consistent with physical distancing restrictions, public events were cancelled, and in response to this service disruption, our team of social workers initiated an online family support group.

Initially, families sought COVID-19 information, education and prevention strategies. Participants also gained support and ideas that fostered wellness and connection during self-isolation. These families have reported improved coping so and are now requesting practical information on communication skills to build and maintain healthy relationships with those they support. In “normal times” communication skills and boundary-setting are amongst our most popular groups. The fact that these topics are of interest now demonstrates that some families are adapting to a new normal and focusing on general coping strategies not specific to COVID-19. In this way, the difficult situation has fostered shared learning, mutual support and adaptation. Individual strengths, kindness and innovation lend to ongoing resilience, individually and collectively.

So far, 38 people have registered for the virtual family support group. We have offered eight one-hour sessions to date with an average of eight participants attending each session. Two sessions are offered per week – one at lunchtime and another in the late afternoon. There are new faces and interactions with each group. The open discussion format allows people to pose questions, share struggles and learn from one another’s experiences.  Some of the key themes identified include safety, supporting from a distance, managing stress and coping with being home together full-time.  Following each group, a summary of ideas published as a “Family Voice Bulletin” is circulated through email across The Royal and through a family caregiver distribution list. 

Find more tips for caregivers during the pandemic from The Royal.

The Royal continues to provide direct mental health care across three campuses and the Community Mental Health Programme (CMHP). While there have been changes to regular services in keeping with physical distancing guidelines, clinicians have adapted support through a combination of outdoor, in-person visits for serious cases, telephone calls and liaising with other organisations. Clinicians actively undertake COVID-19 screening with all clients at every contact and have protocols in place for immediate action should any client show concerning symptoms. Health-teaching includes an explanation of the pandemic, importance of physical distancing and regular hand-washing as well as other safe hygiene guidance. All essential appointments are tracked to ensure clients are receiving necessary care such as urgent medical appointments. Food is monitored to ensure clients have access to regular meals. Clients are receiving necessary medications, injections and blood work through new specific clinics. Lastly, doctors are still meeting clients as needed either by telephone or in-person. Psychologists have begun new tele-care sessions.

While caring for others, we underscore the importance of safety and self-care for all.  Check-in with one another and acknowledge everyone’s creative contributions to providing mental health care during these challenging times. We encourage mental health and social care providers to look for opportunities to practice client and family centred care during COVID-19, such as these ideas adapted from the Institute of Patient and Family Centred Care: 

  • Acknowledge the role of families in supporting clients 
  • Reassure clients and families they are valued and appreciated  
  • Remind clients and families that physical distancing is temporary and necessary for everyone’s safety 
  • Seek inputs and ideas from clients and families in developing solutions together 
  • Encourage families to call clients and write supportive letters 
  • Draw on client and family strengths in managing past stressful experiences 
  • Validate feelings and normalise reactions while also providing support 
  • Help clients and families open up by noticing, identifying and reflecting on their feelings 
  • Use active listening skills - pay attention, reflect, clarify, summarise and share without judgement 
  • Apologise for the way things are and thank people for their patience and understanding 
  • Give a “shout-out” to staff, clients and families who are heroes and beacons of hope

Key resources:

  • COVID-19 Q&A: Tips for caregivers (The Royal) [Link]
  • "My Hero is You" Illustrated Storybook for Children on COVID-19 (IASC) [Link]
  • Early Childhood Focused COVID-19 Resources (UNICEF) [Link]
  • Protection of Children during the Pandemic (Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action) [Link]

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North America
Families and carers
Specialist care
Treatment, care and rehabilitation
All disorders
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