La Loche unveils virtual reality wellness initiative

Submitted photo. A Dene High School student puts a virtual reality headset on display during a demonstration on Dec. 1.

Valerie G. Barnes Connell Jordan
Northern Advocate

Families and community members in La Loche had the opportunity to learn about a new collaborative Virtual Reality wellness initiative aimed at bringing more mental health options for youth into the community recently.
The initiative involves a partnership between the community of La Loche and Saskatchewan Polytechnic. The event was held at the Dene High School on Thursday, Dec. 1.
“The event was a celebration,” Dene High School wellness coordinator Alvera Hatch said in a Saskatchewan Polytechnic news release. “We came together to feast, enjoy entertainment from local jiggers and share what our youth have been collaborating on with Sask Polytech”
La Loche youth initiated the project by bringing the idea of using virtual reality to enhance mental wellness forward; they have been integral part of the project since the beginning.
The project is intended to be a three-year undertaking, which began in 2020. It’s been slow to start, according to Lindsay Boechler, the research lead on the initiative.
“We are looking at ways through virtual reality to support their (youth) mental health and wellbeing,” Boechler said in an interview with the Northern Advocate.
She has been collecting data in the school and from community members to see what resources exist and where there are gaps to ensure the technology works to be a resource for youth in the community.
“Virtual reality if a headset you put on and it’s immersed in technology so you can create social platforms with it. There might be an opportunity to offer clinical resources right here in town rather than by telephone,” Boechler said.
Youth from the community are taking the lead with the project. They have “specialized cameras, which can be used to record teachings or specified environments and then the students can immerse themselves in those recordings at any time.”
While there is still much resources to record, edit and put into the VR equipment, Kayden Roth Howat, 18, a Grade 12 student in La Loche, who has been working with the project since it began, said, he tried the equipment.
“It can read you mood and see if you’re happy or calm. When we put these hits in the VR headset, including myself, it calmed me down probably 50 percent. It calmed me down … I was dealing with my daily life and when I put on this headset all I’m listening to is just this Elder. She’s talking to me and I’m looking around and I could feel waves of water crashing into men. Then I could see the bees and I could see the moon in the sky and all the stars.”
About half the recording and filming in La Loche is complete and perhaps being edited for loading onto the headset, Roth Howat said.
Sometimes the camera shots are blurry or some other thing happens and that all needs to be edited and made to look professional before it’s put to use, he said.
Roth Howard attended the first event for students in the Dene High School and took an interest. It has changed his life and enhanced his skill set since the beginning of the project.
After asking some questions about the process of the initiative, he was invited to join the team working to bring this project to fruition.
Roth Howat has been interviewed about the project on television and is excited about where it will lead to assist you in his community with depression and help to reduce the sense of isolation some youth feel living in a remote northern community.
He said the virtual reality equipment can be set up to bring the world to youth in his community, particularly youth who don’t get the opportunity to leave La Loche.
The project has three phases. With the first phase mostly complete, after a slow start, due to the Pandemic; they need funding to continue.
Further funding is need to continue the project into the proposed second and third years. In those next phases, Sask Polytech will work towards building the secure VR platform and will continue fostering community partnerships and building local capacity surrounding the use and development of VR technology,” quoted from the news release.
CHRIS, the Centre for Health Research, Innovation and Scholarship (CHRIS) at Sask Polytech “supports faculty in the School of Health Sciences and School of Nursing in achieving their scholarship development goals and aspirations. Through CHRIS faculty can success support for publications and presenting, grant and funding applications and requests in service sessions on a variety to topics.
“We are honoured to be a part of this community applied research partnership and pleased to be celebrating milestone research successes like this with the community,” Dr. Madeline Press, director for CHRIS, is quoted as saying in the news release.
When the initiative is up and running youth in La Loche should be able to don a headset and access resources that are culturally based anywhere in the world, whether it be an Elder to talk with from the community, another youth in a distant community or clinical resources in the city.
“For those who cannot afford to leave the town, they would be able to then. You, touch a lot of the earth. They would be able to, basically for free, travel around the world and be able to meet other people, speak to other people that they knew existed. Another benefit to one of these is to learn about culture,” Roth Howard said.
The initiative could offer the experience of learning about their own culture, but also to share in learning the culture of others in different communities and countries both close to home and around the world.
Right now, Roth Howat said, he’s not sure about the timeline into the next phase of the project, he’s excited with what is happening with VR in his community.