February is Black History Month, and the CPA is spotlighting contemporary Black psychologists throughout the month. Dr. Donna Ferguson is a clinical psychologist in CAMH’s Work Stress and Health Program and also runs a private practice where, among other things, she does refugee and humanitarian assessments.
“It’s nice when we hear back from some lawyers who say our report really made a difference in this case.”
It’s rare that a lawyer will reach out to Dr. Donna Ferguson to give her an update of any kind. But when they do it’s a great feeling because she knows she’s made a difference for a refugee seeking asylum in Canada. Dr. Ferguson is a clinical psychologist in CAMH's Work Stress and Health Program and also runs a private practice where, among other things, she does refugee and humanitarian assessments. She says,
“A lawyer may have a client who’s here from their country of origin, where they may have experienced trauma. Sometimes at the hands of a spouse or partner, or it could be bigger than that – it could be political violence. They might be fearful for their lives. Part of their refugee claim might be to have a psychological assessment to establish a diagnosis.”
The diagnosis from Dr. Ferguson and her team is not deciding whether or not a person stays in Canada, or whether their claim of refugee status is legitimate. They are not functioning as some kind of lie-detector test that one might see in the movies. Rather, they’re assessing a person and making recommendations based on what that person has been through, and what they might experience in the future.
“If there is a diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) for example, we would build a case to say how it happened and if possible, get them into treatment here. And we can say that if they were to be sent back to their country of origin, they would have an exacerbation of those symptoms, and we would make recommendations around that.”
During the pandemic, these assessments are happening more rarely – doing them over virtual platforms has proven to be difficult, especially when a translator has to be added to the mix. During this time, Dr. Ferguson has found herself focused more on her job at CAMH, where she has found herself moving away from her original speciality, gambling addiction, and more into the space of workplace mental health.
“I do a lot of panels for CAMH as the Workplace Mental Health Person, giving advice to business leaders. We do Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) work, and those are the primary clients we see. Over the past 20 years I’ve got to know a lot about the workplace! The dos and the don’ts in terms of what business leaders should be doing for their employees, and how to keep people well at work.”
Again though, the pandemic has thrown a bit of a wrench into that. Years of learning the ins and outs of business culture, the best practices, and crunching the data from all kinds of studies has not prepared anyone for the sudden shift to a virtual business operation.
“A lot of this is a work in progress. People had to get creative really quick when it came to the pandemic, to build a virtual environment. CAMH has done it in a lot of ways – our program is fully virtually functional. We rebuilt our assessment tools to be virtual, our individual and group treatment programs, and all of our meetings became virtual. CAMH as a whole, and not just our program, has really done a lot virtually, and that knowledge has been instrumental in helping other organizations.”
Whether helping businesses with a longstanding culture adjust to pandemic life while looking after the mental health of their employees, or helping people from a vastly different culture find assistance here in Canada, Dr. Ferguson’s plate remains full. And the work, no matter what form it takes, remains rewarding!