Metta VanderVliet, Victoria Sexual Assault Centre counsellor, discusses the launch of our new virtual counselling groups.
What is your role at VSAC?
I’m a Stopping the Violence Counsellor and my role is to support survivors in our counselling program, individually as well as running groups to share valuable skills and information for coping, healing and growth.
Can you tell us a bit about VSAC’s new virtual groups that launched this Fall?
In our groups, survivors don’t talk about the traumas that happened to them (that kind of sharing and processing is better suited to the individual counselling process). This helps everyone in the group keep their feet on the ground so they can focus on learning: In our early groups that means learning about how trauma affects our brains and bodies, how we can ground and calm our nervous system, cultivating safety and shifting coping strategies to emphasize self-care and wellbeing. In later groups how to recognize our own boundaries and communicate them effectively, and move on to explore our concepts of relationships and sexuality.
How has the offering of virtual groups shifted the experience for survivors and for you?
We’ve had feedback that participants can feel safer and more supported during and after group because they are in their own home. While certified assistance animals were already welcome in-person, all survivors who have pets can now benefit from their supportive presence during group. Virtual groups have allowed survivors to attend groups despite transportation challenges or other barriers. Anxiety levels that keep people homebound is a very real experience for many survivors. We have seen people in our virtual groups that report they would not have been able to come in person. Some folks find moving around or using fidgets helps calm them. We get reports that people sometimes feel constrained when in-person, but in a virtual group they can turn off their camera and move about with freedom without the concern of distracting others.
How have folks responded to the virtual groups?
The response has been pretty positive overall. Participants report being surprised at how strongly they bond with the group, sometimes as strongly or even more strongly than in person. There has been an especially strong positive response to getting to discuss materials and share coping strategies in small virtual group breakout rooms. Some survivors who find groups difficult for reasons of anxiety have found it easier to participate online, in some cases being able to participate without sharing their video stream is the key to making it feel accessible.
Of course, as you might expect there are some drawbacks. There have been some reports of feeling less connected over the online platform and missing the experience of actually being in the same physical space together. There is also a substantial number of survivors (as well as the broader community) who find online meeting platforms inherently anxiety invoking. While we do offer one-to-one phone delivery of the material for these folks, there can be a sense of loss in not getting to participate they way they would have when in-person groups were running. As facilitators it can be challenging to “read the room” when we only see the typical small images of participants on a screen – some of the body language that tells us how safe or anxious people are feeling is inevitably missed. When video feeds are off we are glad to know those folks are likely taking care of themselves, but we are left guessing how those folks are responding in general to the material. But we are learning as we go. We may engage the chat function as a way for participants to privately let the facilitators know if they are struggling – that’s something that wasn’t really possible in person.
Do you have anything else you’d like to share about the groups?
Overall I think we are all grateful that we have been able to resume running our Skills for Healing group. It’s a great experience for participants to be with other survivors – there’s solidarity in that – it breaks the isolation people can feel. It’s also a great way to share valuable information efficiently with a bunch of people at once. And that helps us serve more people within the all to real constraints of our resources as an organization. With Victoria growing our wait-times were already ballooning to unprecedented (and really quite concerning at times) levels before COVID-19. Thankfully we’ve had some great interim funding and I believe it’s partly thanks to that and of course the tremendous resiliency and passion of our staff that we’ve been able to respond and keep services running as well as we have.
Want to access our services?
If you would like to attend a future group or access our other services please contact us:
Victoria Sexual Assault Centre’s Service Access Line: 250-383-3232