Get to Know Us: Karina Santos

Karina didn’t choose LOFT. LOFT chose her. That’s how she describes the beginning of her experience as a Residential Support Worker with LOFT’s Wilkinson Housing and Support Services. As an immigrant, Karina wanted to work in the immigration and settlement field and use her experience to support other newcomers. However, after being with LOFT for over 5 years, she developed a love for mental health support services.

Coming from a country where there’s a lot of stigma around mental illness, Karina finds it rewarding to be able to help people on a daily basis. “I really enjoy seeing my clients accomplishing their goals, and then making more goals and accomplishing them all,” she says. “I came from a country where mental health challenges and substance use are stigmatized. It hurts me to see the judgement that people with mental illnesses face: it is painful to be called crazy. Mental illnesses are as serious as cancer. The only difference is that cancer is physical and we can see it. The physical pain is more visible than mental pain.”

Karina works at different locations, spending 3 to 4 hours on each site to connect with clients and to ensure they have the support they need to live a comfortable and dignified life. Her support ranges from case management to site supervision. She takes clients to medical appointments, helps them set goals for their lives, and supports them along their journey towards an independent life. As a Residential Support Worker, she also looks after the property where clients live.

When the COVID-19 pandemic started and restrictions were put in place, it was hard to adjust and support clients at the same time. Karina is an essential worker who needs to be on-site to help clients. “Right at the beginning of the pandemic some clients were very aggressive. They didn’t know how to express their frustration. They were dealing with a lot of anxiety,” she explains.

Karina and the team understood there was a lot of information about the pandemic in the news and that it could be overwhelming for clients. “We made sure they were getting the right information from us and staying protected,” she says.

Since doctors and psychiatrists started to provide appointments by phone call, there has been a long wait line to get help. It can take a long time for a client to get an appointment with a mental health care provider. Helping clients learn how to navigate these changes and their expectations was a big part of her role. “Now they are more used to it. They got used to the new normal. They know how everything runs now and are less upset,” she says.

“It was hard for me in the beginning. There was a lot of information on how to take care of clients, of our family members, the property, and ourselves. It was a lot,” she says. “I struggled with family members not understanding my job and not understanding that I can’t work from home.”

Karina eagerly educates others about mental health challenges. She hopes that the pandemic will help them develop empathy toward those who struggle with stigma. “I’ll tell people, don’t judge. You never know what the person went through in their life. Nobody chooses to have a mental illness, to use heavy drugs. Nobody chooses to be homeless.”