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New wellness centre to help first responders with PTSD heal through peer support

By: Sammy Hudes

A network of first responders and former military personnel from the Calgary area are hoping to ensure that no one in their midst has to suffer in silence anymore.

When Jessica van der Hoek was diagnosed with PTSD in 2011, it sent her down a path with no clear direction.

She has worked as a paramedic for two decades, but back then, it was her own life at stake. Financial ruin, alcohol addiction and suicide attempts overtook her well-being.

“I had a very, very lonely journey with it because there were no resources for us back then,” said van der Hoek. “I had no help and no support and it was about a 10-year battle with PTSD.”

A network of first responders and former military personnel from the Calgary area are hoping to ensure that no one in their midst has to suffer in silence anymore. They are launching a new respite centre that will focus on peer support and offer a combination of therapies for those who need help dealing with PTSD issues. The wellness centre, to open in September, will be located at WineGlass Ranch just south of Cochrane, thanks to a donation of land and a ranch house by owner Travis Eklund.

It will include various “nature-focused” therapies, such as yoga and therapeutic stretching, music, gardening and archery, as well as equine therapy. Van der Hoek, who operates Prairie Sky Equine Assisted Therapy in Calgary, will bring her expertise to the program.

“The idea is it’s going to be in the rhythm of nature,” said Bryce Talsma, a volunteer organizer and military veteran.

“Getting people back to nature really has a way of calming people down and bringing them into the present, which is a really critical thing when dealing with mental illness.”

Van der Hoek said equine therapy can help change the way someone’s brain is “activated” and increase their ability to feel emotions of attachment, love and belonging.

“In a nutshell, being around horses . . . actually moves you out of the ‘fight or flight’ part of your brain and into the part of your brain where you can start processing complex thoughts and emotions,” she said. “Physiologically, it changes your entire body, which sets you up for success to start the healing process.”

The idea behind the wellness hub has been in the works since last year, but those involved felt it was even more critical to get it off the ground once the COVID-19 pandemic hit, according to Talsma.

“We could see within our social networks of those who are still on the front lines the amount of stress it’s putting them under,” he said. “It’s exacerbating an existing underlying issue.”

Talsma said it’s difficult to quantify the issue of PTSD among police officers, firefighters, paramedics and military veterans, due to a culture in which many are often hesitant to verbalize their emotions. He said it can take up to seven years for PTSD to manifest itself in military personnel following a traumatic incident.

A University of Calgary study found that around 32 per cent of public safety personnel experience post-traumatic stress injuries as a result of incidents encountered on the job, such as homicides, assaults, suicides and threats to their personal safety.

“It is quite prevalent,” said Mike Skinner, a 28-year firefighter-paramedic from Leduc who serves as the project co-ordinator in Alberta for OSI-CAN. Created as a partnership between the Canadian Mental Health Association and the Royal Canadian Legion, OSI-CAN is a community-based, peer support program for military members and first responders.

Skinner, who is not involved in the wellness centre project, said that even in organizations with robust mental-health programs, there remains a culture of “overarching denial.”

He said first responders “tend to put on a mask, a facade,” as they contend with stigmas, some of which are self-induced. “We’re probably the hardest on ourselves,” he said. “Some of it is false identity, that belief from the public that we’re heroes and that we’re constantly there to help. That puts us up on a pedestal that’s sometimes hard to fall from.”

Skinner said first responders find reasons to explain away their difficulties, such as having trouble sleeping. “The symptoms start to stack up and unfortunately they start to stack up to the point where first responders and military members, they’re taking their lives because of it,” he said. Although issues remain, van der Hoek said the first responder community has come leaps and bounds in recent years. “When I was first diagnosed, nobody spoke about PTSD. It wasn’t even actually recognized as a legitimate injury,” she said. “My advice to somebody would be to seek out help and seek it out early. Don’t wait until you start to have things fall apart before you acknowledge that there might be something wrong. It doesn’t need to get that bad before you can do something about it.”

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