Dedicated to delivering service excellence in community-based mental health care

November 06, 2023

The newly designed Surrey Community Counselling location at SFU's Surrey Campus is enabling the dedicated staff, faculty, and students to reach even more lives through accessible, free, and clinically sound mental health care.

In the clinical counselling offices of SFU’s new Surrey Community Counselling (SCC) location, counsellor trainees work with clients facing a variety of challenges in their lives. Over several sessions, counsellor trainees work with clients by providing dedicated support, specialized services and professional resources. Supervisors are also not far away, offering clients access to a full team of experts who collaborate on the mental health issues in front of them—and how best to approach them.

Each and every member of this knowledgeable and caring team of people is actively rooting for both the client and the counsellor trainee. It’s clear from talking to Dr. Patricia Nitkin, Clinical Professor and Director at SCC, just what the centre means to her. And not only to her, a highly experienced mental health care professional with her own practice, but to the counselling students, SCC staff and faculty, and most importantly the clients who rely on the centre for their mental health care.

Everyone involved is personally invested in creating positive outcomes for the clients who benefit from the free counselling services. “To be able to witness the concurrent development, healing, growth and connection between two human beings is truly beautiful,” she says of the personal impact on her experience working at SCC.

Previously located in a Surrey high school, the new SCC location at SFU’s Surrey campus will enable it to expand access of the vital free services they deliver in the community, and offer even more people in need mental health care support.

Tackling a growing mental health crisis

The need is clear. After more than two years of living with the COVID-19 pandemic, the levels of anxiety, loneliness and depression in our communities has risen dramatically. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, 38% of Canadians say their mental health has declined, and 24% of parents say their child’s mental health is worse. Forty-six percent of Canadians say they feel anxious and worried due to COVID-19.

Of course, mental health issues are not restricted to the pandemic. Many people experience challenges due to addiction, racism, health or financial issues, and many other stressful life circumstances. All too many suffer in silence—often experiencing additional feelings of shame. They often have nowhere to turn due to insufficient mental health support services in most communities, and/or can’t afford to pay for counselling services.

In Surrey, people have been turning to the SCC for 13 years to access free, ongoing clinical counselling delivered by a dedicated team of counsellor trainees and educators from the SFU Master's Program in Counselling Psychology.

The centre’s aims are simple: to provide free counselling services and counsellor education in accordance with the highest professional and ethical standards.  

The “free” element sets the centre apart. “Our services are accessible to the people who need them, whether they can pay for them or not,” says Dr. Nitkin. “We continue to be one of the few free mental health services in the region.”

While clients can self-refer, something else that increases accessibility, over the years referrals from mental health services, community agencies, the Surrey school district, and other organizations have increased dramatically. That’s proof of both the urgent need for free mental health services and the high quality of care delivered by Dr. Nitkin’s team.

13 years serving a community in need

The SCC is the in-house training unit of the Counselling Psychology Program at SFU. It provides clinical training to graduate students in counselling psychology, while also delivering free counselling services to the Surrey and surrounding communitiesy.

The centre makes its services available to people across Surrey, including students and families in the Surrey School District, as well as individuals from other Lower Mainland communities.

From 2010 through to April 2021, The SFU Surrey Community Counselling was a joint initiative of the SFU Faculty of Education and the Surrey School District, located in L.A. Matheson Secondary School. This was a very successful and mutually beneficial cooperative venture.

In January 2022 the centre moved to its new location on the fourth floor of SFU’s Surrey Campus. Multiple teams from SFU developed the new facility which includes confidential spaces for live supervision and telehealth counselling services. The custom design ensures all of the technological advances are behind the scenes and non-intrusive to the environment or experience.

In addition, after being limited to the high school’s opening hours, the new location enables the centre to stay open longer over the course of a year. Counsellor traineess can see more clients with a range of concerns, including:

  • Feeling sad, depressed, or overwhelmed 
  • Coping with stress and anxiety
  • Relationship struggles
  • Low self-esteem and self-worth 
  • Grief and loss
  • Parenting challenges
  • Coping with traumatic experiences
  • Life transitions and decisions
  • Cultural and identity concerns 
  • Self-acceptance and compassion
  • Balancing relationships, work, school, and family
  • Finding purpose and making meaning 

Delivering benefits for clients, students, and the community

Clients see their counsellor trainee for an average of 10 sessions, with staff focusing on delivering specialized and individualized care to each person who walks through the door. This many sessions is truly unique when it comes to free counselling services, and is invaluable for people living with chronic, trauma-related and/or systemic related challenges. For Dr. Nitkin, the impact of the centre’s work on both clients and students is clear.

“Clients effectively have a team of up to about eight or nine people—including seasoned mental health professionals, counsellor trainees and staff, all of whom are really rooting for you,” she says. “They are thinking about you. They are looking for resources and good counselling interventions. They want to do good by you."

Another benefit for clients stems from the importance of feeling that life has purpose and meaning. “Clients know they are also helping to train future counsellors, who can help other people in their community,” says Dr. Nitkin. “Clients often appreciate being a part of something and contributing to the learning experience, at the same time as accessing the support they need.”

From the students’ perspective, the centre provides an irreplaceable opportunity to practice their skills and learn how to be counsellors with actual clients, as well as being able to observe their fellow students with their clients.

“Surrey is a very culturally and ethnically diverse area in British Columbia,” says Dr. Nitkin. “There is a great opportunity for students to see people of all different ages from a huge spread of different cultures and backgrounds, including immigrants and refugees.”

The new location provides new opportunities. For example, the centre now accepts referrals to the SFU Safe Program, which works to keep children and youth out of gangs while building positive life skills and increasing connections with family, school and community.

For Dr. Nitkin, it’s also important to remember the centre’s roots in L.A. Matheson Secondary School. “We kept as much as we could from the old centre, including artwork and furniture that was donated, and incorporated it into the new one so there is continuity and a real appreciation for its history,” she says. “My keys to the centre even still have “Keats" [Patrice Keats, Associate Professor, Faculty of Education and the centre’s first Clinical Professor Director] on the label. We wanted to bring the excellence and character of the original location, and make it even more safe, accessible, beneficial and welcoming for clients.”

Ultimately, the centre is a place for growth and personal development for all—students, clients, and staff.