Clients of WA social support services fight against COVID-19 measures

Young people like Opal Alara became increasingly isolated as COVID-19 figures began to swell across Western Australia.

Ms Alara, who relies on Perth Inner City Youth Services for day-to-day social support services, could no longer speak to her social worker face-to-face or attend regular sessions with her peers.

“There’s a regular routine of going shopping and having regular dates and stuff like that,” she said.

“And when that went out the window, everything else kind of went out the window.”

She said her isolation had worsened as the restrictions left her temporarily unemployed.

Face-to-face contact fades

The growing public health risk of COVID-19 has forced many social support services in Perth to limit face-to-face interactions.

From youth services to substance abuse and alcohol supports, services have replaced group sessions and in-person counseling with phone calls and video chats.

Opal Alara says the Perth Inner City Youth Services House provides a safe space and much-needed routine.(ABC Radio Perth: Alicia Bridges)

Perth Inner City Youth Services tried to hold their walk-in sessions in an outdoor setting in a park, but some of the young clients felt it lacked the privacy and security of their usual meeting place in a home.

Another client, who wanted to be identified, said coming home regularly adds structure.

“People who struggle to create their own routines or structure in their lives really benefit from it because it gives them a foundation to build on,” they said.

“It gives them a sense of restlessness in their lives.”

“We are social animals”

Andrew Hall, chief executive of Perth Inner City Youth Services, said the organisation, which helped find homes for homeless young people, had turned to telephone communication.

A close up of shaking hands.  In the background, a psychologist observes, takes notes.
Clients reported feeling more isolated without in-person consultation.(ABC News: Luke Bowden)

But he said the benefits for many customers weren’t as significant.

“Young people could already be isolated from their family of origin … or there could be abuse and neglect or abandonment or other things,” Mr Hall said.

He said it was difficult for an organization used to in-person service not to go see this youngster.

“We’re social animals, we’re meant to mix,” he said.

Palmerston Association chief executive Emma Jarvis, whose organization provides drug and alcohol counseling and rehabilitation services across WA, said young people had been particularly affected by a lack of contact in nobody.

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“People on the ground, I think they miss that feeling of ‘we’re together’ in a shared space in the room…in terms of that almost sacred space,” she said.

But she said the increase in online options has been good for some customers.

Ms Jarvis said a client who previously had to drive an hour to get to her sessions and suffered from social anxiety about attending in person could focus on what was important when she could. do from his couch.

“It then gave him the courage to go to rehab,” she said.

“I thought it was deep.”

Some benefits of going online

A member of Alcoholics Anonymous, who did not want to be identified, said the shift to using technology has also created new bonds between local groups and people around the world.

“In fact, there is a group of women who are going to meet in New York in September as a result of participating in online meetings,” she said.

She said distance and isolation have long been issues for members of Alcoholics Anonymous.

“When I came to AA in 1994, before I had access to the internet, I lived in a country town and stayed sober through a branch of AA called Loners Internationalists Meeting,” she said.

“We stayed sober through meetings by mail.”

The Wunning Aboriginal Corporation was among organizations that continued to provide in-person drug and alcohol services throughout the peak of the pandemic in WA, albeit with reduced numbers.

Chief executive Awhiora Nia Nia said it was important to maintain some in-person services because, with so many other services having closed or reduced in number, some homeless customers had nowhere else to go.

“A lot of [alcohol and other drugs] clients also have mental health issues, so I think it would have had a negative impact on mental health,” she said.

Meanwhile, Perth Inner City Youth Services’ in-person sessions restarted in late May as COVID-19 infection rates began to drop.

Ms. Alara attended the first session in person.

“It’s really refreshing to be honest, like seeing people I haven’t seen in weeks,” she said.

“Having this to do in the morning doesn’t feel like a chore, but it also makes other things easier.

“And it’s just a really lovely environment.”

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