Free community counselling program helps spread hope, stop stigma

October 10, 2021 at 8:57 am  BC, News, Politics

From an early age, Angela Reimer knew she wanted the kind of job where she could help people.

Diagnosed with a mental illness at 13, her treatment was only medication-based for years until she also discovered counselling and therapy, which had a life-changing effect. It is her own positive experience with mental-health support that motivated her to become a counsellor and an advocate for therapy as a powerful tool to transform the lives of people living with mental-health and substance-use challenges.

For Amen Brar, who was raised in a community of hard-working immigrants from different countries and witnessed the struggles experienced by her friends and family, becoming a counsellor was a chance to give back. Growing up in a traumatic environment, her personal experience with counselling made a world of difference in her life. Now, she feels honoured to deliver this transforming service to other people who have language barriers, often in Punjabi and Hindi.

Brar and Reimer are counsellors at Watari Counselling and Support Services Society. With funding support from the Government of B.C., Watari provides free confidential substance-use counselling to individuals, families and couples in the Strathcona and Downtown Eastside area of Vancouver and surrounding communities. The society offers low-barrier and culturally safe supports and aims to meet people where they are. With an Indigenous counsellor on staff, as well as counsellors speaking a wide range of languages (including Vietnamese, Cantonese, Punjabi, Hindi and Spanish), they are able to match anyone that comes through the door with the appropriate support.

Both Brar and Reimer are especially grateful they are able to support people for free.

“It’s incredible that Watari offers counselling options to people who can’t pay,” Brar said. “Because it shouldn’t be a service only for those who can afford to see registered clinical counsellors.”

For Reimer, the priority is to make sure that as soon as someone enters the counselling space, they can experience what safety is like. “It is a shocking and sad reality, but for some people, their experience with us might be the first time that they had felt safe, heard and respected.”

Although every person that comes through the doors of Watari is different, what they have in common is complex trauma, often starting in childhood, which leads to substance use and depression. Stigma around substance use further pushes them into a state of shame, guilt and isolation. Statistically, the majority of people who die from drug toxicity are alone. That’s why helping people feel less alone by connecting them to a community and instilling hope is an important part of counselling work.

Before going into any type of treatment with a person she supports, Brar makes sure that their basic needs are met, either by providing food hampers or supporting them in finding a safe place to live. “Once their body is safe, we address the substance use and mental health.”

The initial focus is on removing the shame around substance use. “We teach them to show themselves compassion because the world has been pretty tough and stigmatizing.”

Brar sees true transformations when people learn to forgive themselves and let go of the shame that keeps them in the cycle of abuse. “Many of the people we support come to us while they’re in treatment at addiction centres, and we see them move to more stable housing, find a job, make friends, get connected to the community and end their isolation.”

Supporting four or five people a day means hearing their painful stories. The challenge is to be able to hold space for the pain in a therapeutic context, but not to hold onto it personally. Reimer has to remind herself that one person carrying the pain is enough. “I don’t need to carry it, too. It would be a disservice to the people that I support, because it’s hard to hold the pain and the hope at the same time.”

Sometimes Brar and Reimer receive the devastating news that a person they support has died from drug toxicity. On such difficult days, they are fortunate to have a supportive team as well as clinical supervisors at Watari to help them deal with grief and loss.

There are good days, too. An unanticipated impact of this work, according to Reimer, is discovering that the people she supports are applying what they have learned in counselling sessions to support their friends, loved ones or partners.

“Seeing that in the same way that stigma, shame and guilt can spread, so can hope, was beyond anything I could have imagined,” Reimer said. “These lessons of self-kindness and self-compassion are gaining momentum and creating a ripple effect in the community, shaping new possibilities for people – one person at a time.”

Oct. 10 is World Mental Health Day – a day to raise awareness of mental-health issues around the world and mobilize efforts in support of mental health. Quality, consistent counselling can make a huge difference in the life of someone who is experiencing mental-health and substance-use challenges. Through the B.C. government’s investments in community counselling agencies such as Watari, counselling is more accessible than ever before throughout the province, including in rural, remote and Indigenous communities.

Quick Facts:

  • In 2020-21, Watari Counselling and Support Services Society provided 2,980 free counselling sessions to 365 individuals.
  • In 2019, the Province invested $10 million in grants delivered through the Community Action Initiative (CAI) to 29 community agencies, including Watari, over three years. This funding expanded low- and no-cost mental-health and substance-use counselling to September 2022.
  • Twenty additional organizations received COVID-19 funding in early 2020. This provided support for those 20 organizations to provide low- and no-cost mental-health and substance-use counselling services, including virtual services, to March 2022.
  • Since 2019, the Province has invested $14.8 million to support a total of 49 community counselling agencies provincewide.
  • More than 10,000 people have received individual, couples or family counselling through these grants.

Learn More:

Watari Counselling and Support Services Society:

For a complete list of all community counselling agencies funded by the Province, visit:

To connect to mental health and substance-use supports, visit:

For translations, visit:

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