Federal government funds alternative treatment for traumatized veterans

The Project Trauma Support retreat program in the eastern Ontario town of Perth is out to prove that it’s unique method of treating PTSD really works, with the help of $750,000 in funding from the federal government.

Warning: The following story contains graphic detail some readers may find disturbing

Female participants of Project Trauma Support in Perth, Ont., hug as a group. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

Warning: The following story contains graphic detail some readers may find disturbing.

Rob Martin had a rope around his neck three years ago, overwhelmed by feelings he couldn't express. He was haunted by the things he had seen and done over two tours in Afghanistan with the Canadian military.

He chose not to take his life.

After 34 years in the military, then ten years of suffering alone, he has made a new life for himself.

"I lost family, I lost everything, started again," Martin said. "I'm at such a point now that I can be thankful for that because I'm a better human being."

In the last year he's gone back to school, bought a home and remarried. He credits one week spent in Perth, Ont. with his remarkable reformation.

Now the Project Trauma Support retreat program in the eastern Ontario town is out to prove it's unique method of treating PTSD really works, with the help of $750,000 in funding from the federal government.

Military vet overcomes PTSD after Perth retreat program

CBC News

3 years ago
Military vet overcomes PTSD after Perth retreat program 0:45

A different approach

Veterans Affairs Canada announced Monday it would provide the grant to the Mood Disorders Society of Canada, a non-government advocacy organization, to investigate whether the program can be used as an effective treatment for PTSD.

Project Trauma Support offers a different kind of support to veterans and first responders traumatised in the line of duty.

The six-day retreat was launched two years by Dr. Manuela Joannou, a former ER doctor with a family practise in Perth.

"There's been a lot of shift in the world of PTSD in its treatment," Joannou said. "This will allow us to do some really good robust research."

People who suffer from PTSD in those occupations often end up relieved of duty and referred to a psychologist for treatment, Joannou said. If things get really bad, they sometimes end up in a psychiatric hospital. Her centre offers a different approach.

Rob Martin did two tours in Afghanistan with the military, which left him isolated with feelings he couldn't cope with. He credits the Perth program with his ongoing recovery. (Laura Osman, CBC News)

The retreat focuses on what she calls the "moral injury." It's a relatively understudied concept. While PTSD often presents with intrusive thoughts, avoidance and feelings of numbness, Joanou said people often feel shame and guilt because of the things they've experienced in the military or as a first responder. Those are the things she focuses on.

"If you went through something really horrible, say in Afghanistan, and you have some really strong feelings of regret or self-reproach or sadness about it, there's nothing better than being able to sit with a comrade that was in the exact same situation," she said.

Club med, with purpose

The retreat, which she describes as "club med with meaning," allows people to spend time outdoors doing physical activity alongside other people who are going through the same thing. They hold ceremonies for the fallen, make art, meditate and do physical activity.

But Martin said that team building is what really made the difference for him.

"In the depth of your injury you've lost that sense of team. When you've been released from the military when you're not necessarily ready to go you've lost that sense of team. You've lost that sense of identity. Who are you? I think this program gives you back that," he said.

About 178 people have gone through the program so far.

Sgt. Jeremy Blair leads one of the outdoor activities, and he shares his experience with PTSD, which he developed over three tours in Afghanistan.

Dr. Manuela Joannou started Project Trauma Support as a passion project after witnessing the effects of PTSD in her role as an emergency room doctor. (Laura Osman, CBC News)

He hasn't participated in the program, but he said helping sharing his story with so many veterans, police officers, firefighters and paramedics has made a big difference in his recovery.

"All of those professions have a deep foundation of service to others and when you're diagnosed with PTSD you have the potential to lose that meaning in your life, that purpose," he said.

Many people who finish the program go on to start peer support networks at home themselves, he said.

"That provides that sense of purpose, that service to others that most of these people are looking for but have lost the feeling of," he said.

Sgt. Jeremy Blair facilitates one of the sessions in the Perth trauma program. He himself suffered from PTSD after five tours, including three in Afghanistan. (Laura Osman, CBC News )

High hopes for future funding

The group is working with three universities to prove their methods make a positive difference in people's lives. Right now it is funded by donations -- and sometimes by Joannou herself.

The government grant, the first public funds the program has received in the two years since it launched, will give Project Trauma Support some stability for the next few years and allow it to continue to work with the universities to prove their case for ongoing funding.

Joannou hopes to get similar funding to continue to run the program for first responders, including corrections officers, as well.

Need help?

Here are some mental health resources in the National Capital Region:

  • Ottawa Suicide Prevention: 613-238-3311
  • Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553)