A School Counselor's Perspective on Mental Health in Medical School

Haniya Sahi
Published on May 30, 2020. Updated on Sep 15, 2020.

Today, we're featuring medical student Haniya Sahi's interview with Brenda Roach, MBPsS, counselling psychologist at the American University of Integrative Sciences School of Medicine in Barbados. During the interview, Roach provides details on her background as a therapist, her approach to care, and her thoughts on the current COVID-19 situation and how it's impacting the mental wellbeing of future health professionals worldwide. 

May is Mental Health Month, which has gained a new dimension of importance in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Students are encouraged to maintain their routines as best they can in these distressing times in order to maintain optimal psychological health. Furthermore, students should make use of valuable resources if needed, such as speaking to a counsellor, as many of them are also shifting to online services. 

For Mental Health Month, I conducted an interview with Brenda Roach, a counselling psychologist at the American University of Integrative Sciences School of Medicine in Barbados. We discussed her background and thoughts on the current pandemic. Brenda has been very supportive for many of our students and has helped students balance their daily lives, goals, workload, emotions, and so much more. If you have any further questions for Brenda or would like to make an appointment with her, she can be reached on LinkedIn.

Osmosis illustration of a psychologist interviewing a client.

Hi Brenda! To start off our interview, could you share some background on how you got to where you are right now?

I became a Counselling Psychologist because I have always had a passion for helping others.  I have always been the kind of person who listens to what someone is experiencing and then tries to offer some guidance. I believe this stems from the fact that I was under-diagnosed myself for over ten years with endometriosis, and having doctors and adults tell me I was just having a bad menstrual cycle

What is your favorite part of your current job and why is it your favorite part?

Counselling Psychology focuses on the healthier side of a client. It is less pathological. We integrate psychological theory and research with therapeutic practice. We work collaboratively with clients/patients to help empower them, because they have the knowledge about themselves inside them already.

My favorite part about my job is seeing a patient/ client come to an “aha!" moment—that moment when a lightbulb goes off in their head and they realize that everything we have been working on together finally makes sense. Being a part of that journey with someone is magical for me and it helps me to remember why I love what I do.

Osmosis illustration of a patient having an

Can you tell us a little bit about how you approach counselling treatment and how you individualize treatment for a client?

How do I approach counselling treatment for an individual? Well, it's not a "one size fits all," because everyone is different. I first let a client talk about any concerns or fears. If that client wants to cry, scream, shout, swear, I let them do that because they have come to a safe space. Some clients just need to know that someone is there for them, someone who can give them a hug if they need it; someone who will let them cry, someone who will sit in comfortable silence with them and know that it is okay. They are not judged. Then, collaboratively, we decide on what’s best for them. 

I do not force religion, or my goals, onto a client. If through our discussions, I realize that you have a deep faith in God, then I incorporate that into a treatment plan. If I realize that a client’s children or spouse is the source of their motivation, then this is incorporated into a treatment plan. So, it’s basically actively listening and incorporating what is said.

Can you describe your experience with group counselling and its benefits or weaknesses?

I do love group work, simply because I get to see others feeding off the energy within the group. It’s not something that I get to do regularly, however, when I do, I thoroughly enjoy it. Some people are shy and like to sit and observe others within a group, and that’s okay, because they too are learning something. Group work helps everyone to heal through shared experiences.

What would you do if you were unable to provide the level of counselling a client needs?

If I am unable to provide the level of counselling a patient needs, I refer them to someone else. One of my ethical principles is to “do no harm,” this means that I always put my clients first. If that means that I cannot help them, then I have to do what is right by them and refer them to someone who can help them.

 In what ways might you balance the needs of students, parents, and school administrators?

My clients/patients are my main concern. If I am seeing a student, then their health and well-being are my number one priority. The school and parents come secondary. Of course, there are limits to this in confidentiality.

How do you manage cultural differences in a school setting?

Managing cultural differences is an interesting question. I first try to be very respectful of everyone. This means that I ask you to pronounce your name as I don’t want to come off as offensive. After which if I need a student to talk slower or if I realize that I am talking too fast, I make accommodations in that regard. After a session with a culture I am unfamiliar with, I will do some research; research to ensure that I am being adequately respectful. I may not always get it right, as I am only human, but I do apologize if I get it wrong.

What are some of your tips for students in order to maximize their psychological health during stressful times such as these?

So, of course when we talk about managing students' mental health during this COVID-19 crisis, some of the main concerns are: fear and worry, changes in regular routines, an increase in the use of substances, exacerbation of chronic illnesses, and difficulty sleeping.  It's important to note here that not everyone will experience these. Some tips to assist with these include (but are not limited to):

  •  If you have a pre-existing mental health condition, continue with your treatment. So whether that means medications, visits or calls to your mental health provider, etc.

  •  Establishing new routines. With everyone being home, things can sort of go haywire, with everyone not quite knowing what to do with themselves. Establish a new normal.

  • Take care of your body. Get up and move. Whether that entails workouts, yoga, stretching. Get plenty of sleep. Take deep breaths.  Go outside. Eat healthy.

  • Connect with others. Reach out to loved ones and see how they are doing. Talk with a friend. Or simply, talk to a trusted friend about what you are feeling/ experiencing.

What kind of future mental health outcomes do you anticipate due to the current COVID-19 situation?

People learning to readjust post-COVID-19. This can mean coping with the trauma experienced due to quarantine. Sadness and anger due to not being there for a loved one during this time of crisis. Guilt due to elderly family members being separated. Having to make the tough decision to stay away or risk being physically present and infecting a loved one.

Osmosis illustration of a counselor handing tissues to a client experiencing emotional distress.

How have you made changes in the way you offer your services and the types of services you are offering?

People still need support during this very difficult time and so through the university and through my private practice, we are switching from physical face-to-face contact to an online medium. 

Thank you for your advice and for speaking with me today, Brenda.

It's my pleasure. Stay safe out there.

About Haniya

Haniya Sahi is a second year medical student at the American University of Integrative Sciences School of Medicine in Barbados, and a current student in the Osmosis Medical Education Fellowship program. Originally from Toronto, Canada with the dream of one day specializing in Emergency Medicine. Her hobbies include travelling, styling, baking, and helping others achieve their goals.

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