Virtual reality project fosters youth mental health in La Loche

La Loche student Deondre Herman and Saskatchewan Polytechnic are exploring how virtual reality can support mental health.

When virtual reality headsets arrived at Deondre Herman’s high school in La Loche, Sask., he was immediately intrigued.

Herman is one of the La Loche students involved in a partnership with Saskatchewan Polytechnic, exploring how virtual reality can help support youth mental health in remote Saskatchewan communities.

Lindsey Boechler, who serves as research lead on the project, said she was inspired to explore virtual reality as a mental health tool after years of working as a paramedic in the north.

“Serving communities across northern Saskatchewan, I witnessed barriers to care experienced not only by youth, but by most people living in remote northern communities,” she said.

Looking at the disproportionately high rates of mental illness and suicide among Canadian Indigenous youth, and the lack of local resources in the north, Boechler wondered if virtual reality could offer another pathway for youth to meet with counsellors and connect with services.

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“I think it’s a whole new approach to mental heath care, really,” she said. “With the statistics we’re seeing right now, we know what we’re doing is not working. I’ve collected data from clinicians, and they know what we’re doing isn’t working. We’re just perpetuating the same cycle. … But this can really change the way we offer mental health care, long-term.”

Alvera Hatch, Dene High School’s wellness coordinator, said students in remote communities like La Loche have a lot to gain from technology like virtual reality.

“Even in our schoolhouse, our counsellors and staff are pretty limited,” said Hatch. “Even getting access to psychologists has a long, long waiting list. But if you have this (virtual reality) available, at least in the meantime you can have somewhere to escape and someone to talk to.

“And especially for teenagers, who prefer to be doing this stuff online, this is a huge breakthrough.”

As she watches the Dene High School students participate and offer their input on this project, Hatch is full of pride for what they have already accomplished, and how this work could benefit other youth in the future.

“Sometimes when you hear about our community, you don’t hear a lot of great things,” she said. “But if we can get this out there, that this was developed in our own community with our own students, this is something to be proud of. … Our kids are doing great stuff that they should be recognized for.”

When students meet each other and access resources in virtual reality, Hatch says it sends a powerful message.

“You’re not alone,” she said. “There’s hope. There are people out there who are going through the same things, and we can support each other.”

Over the past three years of research, Boechler said the young participants have been enthusiastic about the project, and have offered many ideas about how to fully explore the possibility of the technology.

“They’re looking to use it to connect with other youth and to share their community’s culture,” she said. “They want it for educational purposes and to be able to access and attend workshops.”

Virtual reality is also helping some youth feel more comfortable accessing mental health care resources and feel empowered to find the support they need.

“The youth are really interested in VR,” said Boechler. “We’ve had a lot of youth where … if you ask them what they need as a mental health resource, they’re pretty reluctant to say that they need mental health resources. It doesn’t really draw them. But when you bring out a VR headset, people are attracted to it. They’re drawn to it, they’re curious, and they want to see what’s being offered.

“So I think the VR technology in itself is a real draw, to help engage youth and showcase some of those resources that we have to offer.”

While La Loche focuses on innovations in mental health care, challenges remain, and new incidents can leave people shaken.

Earlier this week, a student at Dene High School stabbed a staff member and another student, Mayor Georgina Jolibois confirmed on Friday.

Jolibois said the stabbing has re-traumatized the community, which is trying to make sense of what happened.

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She said the two injured people were being treated, and the person responsible was in RCMP custody.

Shortly after the incident, the school division said the school was safe and there was no current threat.

— With Canadian Press files

This story was originally published in the Saskatoon StarPhoenixIt is republished under a Creative Commons license as part of the Local Journalism Initiative.

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