A local group is hoping to provide a space for first responders suffering from workplace stress illness and injury to feel safe, relax and begin to heal.
The River Valley Resilience Retreat (RVRR) would provide responders with a secluded and safe respite to relax, recover and learn resilience skills to support them in their personal and professional lives.
The vision is to also provide peer supports and other aids before the effects of post-traumatic stress or trauma begin to further compound.
The full effect of workplace trauma is only just starting to be understood. Studies have shown that as many as one-third of serving correctional officers battle Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD.
PTSD is just one example of an Operational Stress Injury or OSI, defined as any persistent psychological difficulty resulting from operational duties. It can include anxiety disorders, depression, PTSD and other conditions that interfere with daily functioning.
A 2016 study estimated that 70,000 non-federal firefighters, police and paramedics have suffered from PTSD. A 2017 study found that 44.5 per cent of the 5,813 public safety personnel participants screened positive for one or more symptoms consistent with mental disorders.
It’s something that the RVRR founders are keenly aware of. They’ve been working to get the facility up and running since at least 2019.
The group has been donated a 10 acre parcel of land along the south shore of the North Saskatchewan River in the Lily Plain area west of Prince Albert.
“It’s got a beautiful view, it’s very serene,” said Tara Kennedy, who was brought on to help get the project off the ground.
“It’s very peaceful, which a lot of the people need when they’re dealing with mental health issues.”
The land, though, is just land. It has river access, trials, natural springs and vast green pastures, as well as lush trees to protect all who explore them. But it doesn’t have any buildings.
While the group has lofty dreams of what the retreat could become, they have to start somewhere. For them, that’s a lodge that they estimate will cost about $350,000 to build. That’s where the fundraising comes in. While they’ve been able to raise some funds through Facebook campaigns and through a donation from local firefighters, they’re hoping to raise quite a bit more to get their facility, and their retreat, off the ground.
That’s where Martin Taylor comes in. Taylor spent five years as a primary care paramedic and the last nine months as a member of the Prince Albert Fire Department.
He launched a gofundme campaign to help raise the funds needed to start building the retreat.
As of Wednesday evening, the campaign had raised just over $1,000 of its $350,000 goal.
“It’s really needed right now, more than ever,” Taylor said.
Taylor has seen colleagues struggle and careers end from OSI experienced by first responders doing their job. He hasn’t needed something like it himself, but he recognizes that the need is there.
“It would be nice to know it’s there in the future if I ever do need it, and that it’s there for those who need it now,” he said.
Fellow firefighter Jeff Reeder also knows how important the RVRR is. He’s had his own battles with OSI and has said that he wished a similar facility would have been available when he first sought help. Reeder was one of the first to get involved with the project.
“It’s important to have a place that people can go to access treatment, utilize that nature setting tin a home atmosphere. It’s more conducive to healing” he said.
He said the vision is for the retreat to provide services such as one-on-one counselling, equine therapy and a safe place to rest.
“We want it to be a client-centred approach. People will require different resources and we want to provide a place where we access as much as we can out of one location.”
The RVRR wouldn’t be breaking new ground. Facilities exist in other provinces, just not here,
“There’s nothing like this around here. People who have been lucky enough to get into a program have had to travel out to BC or out to the east coast,” Kennedy said.
“This will be much closer. We have a really large group of people here in Saskatchewan who are struggling. There isn’t really a program here set up for them.”
Potential clientele can also be found close to home. Over the past few years, a growing number of firefighters, police officers, paramedics, health care workers and correctional officers have been meeting once a week to help each other through a peer support group called What’s Important Now, or WIN.
That group is led, in part, by Michelle McKeaveney.
She’s another one of the people behind the RVRR project. She has been working for years to help other first responders like herself deal with the effects of workplace trauma.
McKeaveney has a background in corrections and social work. She’s also the spouse of a veteran.
She’s seen first-hand how peer support can help.
“For five years, we’ve had peer support going on. People like peer support. Every week more and more people in our demographic are trusting in the process and coming, but once a week for an hour isn’t enough support to give people the necessary tools to carry on with the rest of the 23 hours in a day,” she said.
“People, when we share what we want to do, they wish they had a place like that when they got diagnosed,” she said
“Creating a space where people can actually go and let their guard down, relax and let their body physically heal, while we give them some mental resiliency skills, is the key for people to have longevity and healing.”
McKeaveney said she sees the lodge as somewhere where they can take a handful of people and give them the skills, space, time and activities to build them up for their next challenge, whether that’s filling out a worker’s compensation claim, heading to further treatment or just getting through the next 23 hours.
A space where people can let their guard down and begin to heal “means a place of mutual respect and understanding that’s more than an hour in a week,” she said.
“it’s important to me that people’s individual stories are acknowledge and understood and heard before they die by suicide. The key for me is to prevent suicide.”
Suicide amongst first responders is no small concern. In the United States, more first responders die by suicide than in the line of duty each year. In Canada, suicide rates among paramedics are five times higher than the national average.
If every single person who reads this has been touched by suicide gave a dollar,” McKeaveney said, “I’d have this place built by spring.”
It will start small, she said, with fireside talks along the river to open up the conversation so people feel like they’re included and welcomed into a safe space. It’s a way, she said, to help, instead of just paying lip service or posting hashtags to support the idea of improved mental health.
“We want to offer a safe space for people experiencing hardship through their mental health,” she said.
“They need a place to just rest and offer them some quiet space — a place in front of the fireplace, to watch the river float by, a place amongst the grounds, just to be immersed in a place where we can lock the gate and everybody is safe for their time here.”
“We are one of the only provinces not to have a place like this. The province is ready, and this pandemic has shown to us that we need to help the people who are the first ones to answer the phone to come rushing to us.”
The gofundme can be found at https://www.gofundme.com/f/rest-for-our-responders. For more information about the retreat, visit rivervalleyresilienceretreat.com.
If you are or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, help is available 24/7. Support can be found at the Canada Suicide Prevention Service website or through mobile crisis, (306) 764-1011.
If you are in immediate danger, you can call 911.