Q&A: Free culturally-informed therapy for Edmonton South Asians thanks to funding boost

Reena Samra is a therapist and owner of BIPOC Healing and Wellness Centre. (CBC Edmonton - image credit)
Reena Samra is a therapist and owner of BIPOC Healing and Wellness Centre. (CBC Edmonton - image credit)

An Edmonton mental health service centre is offering free therapy sessions to members of the South Asian community, thanks to a funding injection from a local community service organization.

Baba Nanak Trust Foundation received $75,000 from the Community Services Recovery Fund, a $400-million investment from the federal government to support charities and non-profits.

A portion of that funding was distributed among eight service organizations that cater to the South Asian community in Edmonton, including the BIPOC Healing and Wellness Centre.

Kashmir Gill, president of the foundation, said it applied for the funding after seeing a need for mental health services, especially around the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We decided to start campaigning to see what was the professional community out there that had the experience among South Asians, in terms of providing the language and understanding the social stigmas attached around mental health," he said.

That's how the foundation learned about the wellness centre. Through the funding, 10 people will have access to five, free culturally-informed therapy sessions.

The sessions are available for people in the community until June.

Reena Samra, a therapist and owner of BIPOC Healing and Wellness Centre, spoke to CBC's Edmonton AM about why this funding is important in trying to get the right kind of therapy to the community.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you tell us more about what the centre is offering to folks with this new funding?

We're offering culturally informed counselling sessions, one to three free sessions, up to five, for folks who otherwise would have financial barriers to being able to access therapy and get support for their mental health.

And our initiative offers a unique opportunity for folks to meet with a South Asian therapist who can speak their language, such as Punjabi or Hindi, and offer an understanding of their culture and how that impacts their mental health, really getting that representation in therapy that they otherwise may not get.

That must be a great comfort for them and an easy sort of way in.

Absolutely, because a lot of people within our South Asian community really struggle with being able to go to counselling. [They] haven't really felt like it's been for them because there hasn't been that representation or they're not sure about. "Can I actually share about my problems with a stranger? Is it going to be safe? Can I actually get help?" And this is a way to really bridge, in that this is what counselling is about, and this is what support you can get, and it can be for you.

LISTEN | Culturally-informed therapy and why it's important

You decided to offer this to the South Asian community. You must have seen the need is there?

Absolutely. There's such a big need.

We do a lot of community outreach, going out into the community, meeting people at events, going to cultural centres, and we've talked to folks who have said, you know, "I would like to access counselling, but maybe these are some things that I'm hesitant about." So then we wanted to create a program. It really addresses those gaps in the mental health system.

Is it difficult to find counsellors who have that kind of background?

Yes, there can be a lot of barriers for South Asian folks or racialized folks in general to get through grad school and to become counsellors. So it's quite a lengthy process, you know, not always financially feasible for everyone.

I look out for hiring therapists who uniquely care about representing cultural and racial minorities in therapy and addressing what is unique to our communities.

And that kind of culturally representative counselling, is that taught at all?

I would say it's not taught as much as it should be. In grad school programs, we kind of get a general overlay of how to do counselling, but not some of these like specialized, nuanced understandings of the community needs.

So a lot of what I've developed has been through listening and learning from community and creating a framework that I can then train therapists on in order to be culturally informed.

Why is it important to remove those financial barriers for some people?

Oftentimes therapy is very unaffordable and inaccessible for folks. I mean, a standard session can be up to $220 an hour and that's just not feasible for a lot of the average population. So we have found it very important to offer free, low-cost, sliding-scale [fees] for people of different financial situations so that there's something for everyone.

Offering free therapy sessions … is that something you want to do in the future? You need the funding obviously, to get it going first?

We tend to have pop-up special initiatives when we get the funding where we can offer focused free therapy on a specific kind of topic or specific population. But even year-round we do offer free therapy because we have practicum students complete their counselling practicums at our centre ... they can offer free or very low-cost services because they're training to be fully licensed therapists.

Is there any stigma in the community against it?

Absolutely. Mental health in general, I would say, it is very stigmatized. And then when we look at populations that have marginalized barriers, there's even heightened stigma where it's not talked about and culturally may not always be relevant. So that's why it's important to train therapists on how to make it culturally relevant.