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Checking in with SAIF

SAIF says COVID has reinforced the important act of checking in with loved ones and people you know. You know SAIF? You should check in with them too.
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Areni Kelleppan, the executive director for Stop Abuse in Familes (SAIF), says the organization has been getting more calls than usual from people worried about their friends and family during the pandemic. CHRIS COLBOURNE/St. Albert Gazette



If there’s a silver lining in the pandemic, it’s that many people have a renewed interest in fostering their community and helping others.

“We're seeing what we hoped people would do, which is check in with people. If people are checking in saying, ‘Hey, how, how are you doing?’ or ‘Haven't talked to you in a while’ or whatever, sometimes that invitation allows other people to share what's going on in their lives and what they're struggling with,” explained Areni Kelleppan, executive director at St. Albert Stop Abuse in Families (SAIF).

“We are finding that people are just that much more aware of people's mental health and people being isolated. As a result, we're getting a few more calls than we normally would have.”

Checking in becomes a vital instrument of health and safety in the realm of domestic violence and family abuse.

“The cornerstone and foundation of family violence and domestic abuse is really unhealthy behaviours. If we don't know how to communicate, if we don't know how to regulate our emotions and behaviours, if we don't know how to resolve conflict, those are all the things that contribute to unhealthy relationships. That's what contributes to family violence and abuse. If you learned unhealthy behaviours, that's what you're going to continue to model for your own children, for your own family.”

The big question is: what do you do when you have witnessed or have concerns that abuse is taking place?

SAIF can coach you through having that talk with that abused person in your life. It might get uncomfortable and awkward. It might get emotional and difficult. Kelleppan and her staff of counsellors get that. As uncomfortable as the subject and the conversation might be, at least it’s action leading towards help.

First off, she reminds you that it can be done gently and it starts by cushioning your language to not seem judgmental about the person who might be the source of the trouble. Use ‘I’ statements to solve this: ‘I feel that’ or ‘I’ve noticed that you’ve been acting differently’ for example.

“That's the first thing because then it draws attention to something you've noticed and they can respond to. It's always from a place of empathy and sympathy.”

If that person responds that they’re fine, be prepared to believe them and say that you just wanted to check in. That should help to dispel any defensiveness because it shows that you care. If it seems severe and you feel comfortable enough, you could say that you’re worried.

“It depends on the type of relationship you have with the person. If it's a very close friend, or a sibling ... or a parent that you're close to, you might feel okay by asking that direct question: ‘I'm worried that you're not safe. Are you safe? Do you need help?’”

Some people are not ready for dealing with their problem and you need to give them the time. The first step is the crucial one: you’ve opened up the conversation and addressed an issue. This could make you the person they come to talk to when they are ready. You extended a hand and you weren’t pushy, Kelleppan says. Good job. That could make all the difference in the world.

But then that person might open up too. They might confirm the problem is occurring. Know your own boundaries because there are two ways that this can go.

“This is some heavy emotional lifting. You don't want to go down the rabbit hole too because you want to be there as a support person but you don't want to lose yourself in the midst of that as well.”

Call SAIF at 780-460-2195 to get some pointers to prepare you for this moment. They can book you in for a phone consultation with a clinician who can coach you for finding the right words and having the right resources to have handy.

The other thing you can do is just empower yourself by reading and researching the subject to set yourself up well for that conversation. Always remember that you’re the one who is going to say things to put the ball in motion but you must be a good listener. What does that mean?

It means being open and always believing what they say. It validates their experience. If it’s a shocking admission as it sometimes can be, say that you’re sorry to hear that it’s happening and ask if they’re safe and if you can do anything to help.

If they're not feeling safe, keep listening, she added. There might be tears.

“Sometimes with a disclosure, the floodgates open and they start crying, or they start doing an emotional dump of information on you. It can be very overwhelming for you.”

Be prepared to listen by nodding your head and holding their hand to show that you are listening even though you're not saying anything, just don’t interrupt them.

“Sometimes they might say, ‘I'm so overwhelmed, I don't even know what to do.’ That's when you can gently suggest, ‘based on what I'm hearing, there's some resources in the community that you could reach out to that have professional services to listen and to help in a way that maybe I can't.’ If they are open to it, you can give them the information.”

What SAIF offers

There are education programs and free, short-term counselling programs for both teens aged 12 to 17 and for adults. Group counselling programs too. They cover the range of emotional, psychological, sexual, verbal, financial, spiritual and cultural abuse.

SAIF is a second stage trauma organization, Kelleppan noted, because it does not operate as a shelter. That job goes to Jessie’s House in Morinville.

SAIF also offers play therapy for 5- to 11-year-olds. It’s a relatively new program although it’s on pause due to COVID.

“With children, talk therapy doesn't always work. Children have imaginations and so the way that they communicate is through play,” she explained.

For background, she offered Charlie’s story. Charlie is a real kid but that is not his real name. SAIF works with schools helping children at risk in the community. One school brought Charlie to her attention. He was six at the time and very disruptive, very angry, and he would throw things. His only communication method was yelling and screaming, she said, pointing out that he was using words no child should know,

“We knew that his home situation included abuse but it was very unlikely that Charlie would ever be removed from the home because of the nature of the abuse. If it's physical or sexual (abuse), that tends to be much easier to remove a child, but when it's verbal and emotional, it's a little trickier. It doesn't often happen.”

Unfortunately, SAIF didn’t have a program for Charlie at the time and Kelleppan knew his parents couldn’t afford a private therapist at $300/hr. A guidance counsellor at the school had worked with the young child and had some experience with play therapy. During play, Charlie built fortresses and walls and fences and gates out of sand.

He said he needed to protect the castle.

“From there, we could determine he was trying to protect himself: Charlie is trying to build all these shields around himself to protect himself from what he deals with every day. Now, if we had asked him outright, we wouldn't have gotten that, but from play therapy, we could figure out Charlie was scared. He operates from a sense of fear and he's trying his darndest to protect himself. All the yelling and the throwing things ... he is protecting himself,” she continued.

“We've known this for a while – that children therapy was important – but it didn't hit home as hard as when I heard Charlie's story. We all looked at each other trying to help this kid and knowing his future was likely to already be written at six years of age: that he was likely going to be an abuser himself; that he was likely going to have dysfunctional relationships; that he was susceptible to addictions. We said, we've got to change that, so we raised the money with the community to pilot a program this year.”

SAIF has a waitlist for this program, which requires funding as does its other programs and services. That’s one of the many reasons why the St. Albert Gazette spent September looking deep into what they offer back to the community. It’s important to shine a light on an agency that helps people who really need it.

SAIF needs your help too. It's time for all of us to check in.

Scott Hayes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

About the Author: Scott Hayes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Ecology and Environment Reporter at the Fitzhugh Newspaper since July 2022 under Local Journalism Initiative funding provided by News Media Canada.
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