Written by: The Circles Team

July 18, 2021

This week we’d like to put the spotlight on Lisa Brookman, MSW, PSW, t.s., psychotherapist, and the co-director of the West Island Therapy and Wellness Centre, a private Canadian clinic promoting mental health and wellness. For over two decades, Lisa has worked with individuals, couples & groups for issues surrounding anxiety, depression, infertility, postpartum depression, parenting challenges, marital conflict, self-esteem/confidence building, self-compassion and self-worth, bereavement, and lifecycle issues.

So before we get into the nitty-gritty of everything, can you tell me a little bit about you and your background, and about the West Island Therapy and Wellness Center?

I’ve always been in the helping profession, even when I was young, I was always volunteering. It was a no-brainer going into social work and then doing my master’s of social work. Yaniv and I met when we were 19 and 20, so we’ve been together for most of our lives. Working in the public sector has always been great, but we knew that we wanted to go into the private sector of therapy, wellness, and psychology because we didn’t want to have parameters on the type of work that we did. We wanted to be able to really feel out what the community means and not have any boundaries on what we can offer. So in 2001, our first child Alexandra was born, and I went on maternity leave, and that was the year that we launched West Island Therapy. We rented a space and we kind of said, “Okay, let’s see what happens as long as we each get one client, we’ll be able to cover our rent.” That’s how it started. We just wanted to break even and not feel like we had any overhead. Fast forward 20 years later, we have almost 45 staff and a wonderful, warm, nurturing group of people. We do everything from pediatrics right up to geriatrics and everything in between. It was our dream come true. We slowly built it over the years, we brought on like-minded staff who bought into our value system of everyone feeling like a family member when they join our practice. So it starts from us, but all the therapists that work with us, buy into that same theory of making people feel safe. It’s been fabulous. So I’ve had these wonderful and great experiences. Part of the work that I do with my clients, whether it’s in individual therapy, or whether it’s in group work, it’s to really help people come out of their comfort zone and learn to be purposeful and feel good and be in a place where they want to be. I felt like I needed to practice what I preach, if I’m going to be working with clients like that, I need to do that for myself. That’s why I did these big huge challenges of TV and radio shows and blogging. All very out of my comfort zone, but have been really really wonderful life-changing experiences that I think have helped me get to where I am.

There’s actually something I wanted to touch on which is, you’re called the West Island Therapy and Wellness Center, and I think a question that’s emerging now is the difference between mental health and mental wellness. So how do you differentiate between the two?

So it’s interesting because we used to be called just the West Island Therapy Center and about two or three years ago, I was driving in the car, and I said, we’re missing the mark, even with our name, because what we’re really promoting is wellness. Psychological wellness, mental health, and wellness. So I see mental wellness as the umbrella and everything else kind of falls underneath. And I remember literally that day when I had that thought I called our web designer, and I called our branding person, and I said, change our logos, change everything, I can’t go another day without having the word wellness as part of our brand. So to me, everyone needs to practice mental wellness, everyone should have wellness as part of their daily health routine. What’s been really interesting for us is that the work that we’re doing, we’re also doing in pediatrics, and we’re being able to explain the purpose of wellness even to five and six-year-olds and their parents. So our hope is that with this push that the world is having about prioritizing wellness on many levels, we’re going to teach really young kids what it means to be healthy and well. By the time they get to be adults, they’ll have so many tools and techniques under their belt, I think it’s going to be wonderful.

Adding on to that, wellness has also become a very stereotypical term. When people hear wellness they think, meditating, journaling, and a face mask. What does wellness mean to you? How does one become mentally well?

I think all those things are part of it. Having a healthy lifestyle, being mindful, and practicing meditation and yoga are a nice portion of it. But if I really had to look at what wellness means to me, it’s about self-worth and self-compassion. It’s about learning to love yourself, learning to treat yourself with kindness. To understand what your worth is. I think when we really learn to practice and embrace that, that’s when we’re truly well. The other part is great, but sometimes it becomes a bit superficial. It’s very important to have a self-care routine, but if you don’t get to the depth of what wellness means, and it’s really about caring for your being, like who you are as a person, I think we missed the mark. The better we are, the better we are to those around us. So to truly be well means to be able to care and nurture ourselves first, and to care and nurture the people around us if we choose to. So I think it’s deeper than the self-care routine.

Yeah. 100%. You’ve done online therapy, in-person therapy, individual therapy, and group therapy. When you think about all of those different mediums through which people can receive therapy, what do you think the differences are, in terms of the benefits?

It’s interesting because, before COVID our team had never really done any virtual therapy, everything was face to face. Our clinic prided itself on having beautiful aesthetics and comfy pillows and cozy blankets and clients could come and lie on the couch and wrap themselves up and feel really nurtured for therapy. Then COVID hits, and as a team, we completely pivoted. The entire team was trained and all the clients transferred over to zoom. What I ended up realizing, over the months after we got used to the change, is that it’s not so much the environment that our clients are in, it’s the feel of the relationship that you create, online. So I have found that it’s just as nurturing, cozy, and comfortable to do a therapy session in my office as it has been for a client to do it in their own bedroom. There have been those perks of that. Then if you look at the question of which therapy works best for who, I have clients who have done individual therapy for years who very much were looking for a like-minded group of people to connect with. They’ve transferred into one of our workshops or our groups and wanted to stay there and wanted to give therapy a break. Then I’ve had the opposite of people who have been in group therapy, who have loved it, and then sometimes come in for therapy, and say, you know, what, I think I want a little bit more individual. So I think it really has to do with the headspace of where the client is. I always have felt that group therapy, individual therapy, they’ve always kind of gone hand in hand. So to be honest, I love the combination of both. One thing on my bucket list was to teach a course at McGill School of Social Work. That’s where I graduated from and my daughter’s a student there now. It was really important for me to challenge myself and get a job there, and I did in 2016. I actually taught social work group work to a group of social workers. Of all the courses that I could have fallen on, it was that one. To be able to teach budding social workers the importance of doing groups, and what it means, and what the impact is, that was when I got that moment that we needed to start incorporating groups more into our practice. So I think the combination is what really makes it attractive to people and for them to be able to choose what feels best for them.

Yeah, exactly. And what would you tell someone who’s hesitant about joining a group?

What I would say to someone is, first of all, it’s worth a try. It’s worth the challenge of putting yourself in an uncomfortable position. The nice thing about groups is, you could be an active participant and talk, or you could be an active listener and just sit back and listen. You can choose what you want. It could change from week to week. That’s the beauty of group work. When you’re in one on one therapy, it’s all on you. You’re forced to be interactive at that moment. The nice thing about groups is you find a like-minded group of people who are probably going through something similar or might be two steps ahead or two steps behind you. There’s something very comforting about being in that type of environment. I’ve had clients who have reached out to me or the clinic to say, “I’m skeptical” or “I’m a little bit scared to try it.” There’s a want, but they’re very nervous. I always say it doesn’t hurt to try. Most people are pleasantly surprised with how warm, nurturing, and encompassing that sense of community is. After that first time going, they ended up going and kept going. So I think it’s about putting yourself out there and living the experience of what it means to be in a group. So I always encourage people to just try, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised with what you end up feeling.

Yeah, for sure. You mentioned earlier that you really had to adjust following the onset of the pandemic, but what do you see as the long-term mental health impacts of the pandemic?

That’s an interesting question, because not only did I get to be a therapist during the pandemic, and a business owner during the pandemic, but I’m also a mom of three and I’m a person who lived through the pandemic. So I think there’s going to be a lot more health anxiety. I also think that for teenagers, there’s been a social impact on them. It’s only a year and a half, but a year and a half is crucial for a lot of kids at certain ages. There’s going to be an impact on social skills, on people’s ability to learn how to communicate, be good listeners, and just how to interact. We’ve seen a big impact, and I’m sure it’s going to continue, on couples. Couples having to be together and live together very intensely, we’ve had a surge in couples therapy. What I’m seeing more of our couples that have realized that it’s not the relationship they want to be in. So I think that we’re going to have a lot more couples splitting up and the impact that that has on the family. I think that there’s going to be lots of effects. I also think we’re going to see a lot of social anxiety for kids who are starting daycare or nursery school since they’ve never really interacted with another person before, only their parents. I think the mental health community is going to be for many, many, many years, very impacted by the effects of COVID.

How do you see the mental health space and wellness space evolving following COVID?

Just with regards to virtual versus in-person, I know that our plan is to continue virtually. I think it has provided ease for clients to be able to come for therapy, even if they’re working, or they have kids at home. So that part will remain the same or the same since COVID. So I definitely think the virtual will be very important. Therapists are working a tremendous amount, that was one of the reasons why we instituted some group work, to be able to give people a therapeutic environment to be in with a facilitator where they can talk about their issues, and maybe cut down the waitlist of them waiting a month for therapists when they can just enter a group. So I think that the combination of group work and individual work is going to help us touch many more clients. We’re trying to collaborate with other clinics, and I think that’s very, very important. I really think it’s time for everyone to come together. We can’t all do it all. So I really think that collaboration of people coming together and working together to support the community will make it easier for us as clinicians, and also make sure that clients get the services that they need. Just during COVID, we’ve brought on a dozen new staff. What’s been wonderful is we’ve been able to bring people in from other provinces. So we have therapists now that work with us from Ontario, and we have someone who’s potentially coming on from British Columbia. So the virtual platform has allowed us to have a broader reach. It used to be that all of our therapists were from Montreal because we were brick and mortar, but we now have the leeway to be across Canada with a lot of ease, which has been fabulous for us.

Amazing. I want to come back to you for a second and all the things that you do. Can you tell me a bit about #Iloveme and WiseWomen Canada?

So for WiseWomen Canada, many years ago I called my best friend, and said to her, I have this idea but I need to do it with someone because I don’t want to do it by myself. I dragged my friend who’s a teacher by profession and a mental health advocate. It was a platform for women to be able to share their stories and connect with like-minded women. It was a wonderful platform across Canada. The same thing with #Iloveme. #Iloveme has been my favorite little project that I’ve been working on. It’s a women’s wellness workshop program, where like-minded women gather. I was doing workshops throughout Montreal but unfortunately, when COVID hit, both WiseWomen and #Iloveme were put on hold. They were both like amazing projects. I always like to have something that I’m working on.

Wow, amazing. So do you also live 24 hour days like the rest of us? Or do you have longer days?

I’m very, very good at setting boundaries. I’m good at work-life balance. I do everything, you’re right, but I do it within moderation, and I do things that feel right to me. I don’t know how I do it all. I wish I had more hours in my day. I always say to my husband, I wish someone could just grant me six, eight more hours, I’d get a lot more done. I think it’s all about balance. But it really comes with experience in challenging yourself. You know, if you don’t challenge yourself to have a lot on your plate and try all kinds of things, you don’t realize what balance looks like. I always say to people, the more you end up trying and dipping your toe in and trying to figure things out, the more balanced you actually become. People think that if you do less, you’re balanced. But it’s actually if you do more you become balanced. It’s that experience of pushing the limits and seeing what feels comfortable and what doesn’t feel comfortable. That helps you truly realize what works for you.

It’s ironic but true. Well, Lisa, I think that’s everything. Thank you so much for starting your day with me. I appreciate it.