Unique eastern Ontario retreat offers hope for people with PTSD

A unique, week-long retreat in Perth is bringing people with post-traumatic stress disorder together, which participants say is offering hope and comfort.

Participants connect with fellow military personnel and first responders in Perth, Ont.

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

For most of us, on-the-job stress revolves around missed deadlines or difficult co-workers.

But for military personnel, police and other first responders, it can come from life-and-death situations, often affecting children and infants.

The result can be the onset of post-traumatic stress disorder and devastating consequences to their personal and professional lives.

But a unique, week-long retreat in Perth is offering them some hope.

Hal Hughes graduated from the Project Trauma Support retreat and now acts as a 'shepherd' for new groups of participants. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

"In the ordinary world, when someone dies, when there's a tragedy, there's a funeral, there's a wake, there's fellowship. You break bread with your family, there's a laying to rest ceremony, but as a first responder we deal with death and then we go home. There's no ritual. There's no turning of the page," said Hal Hughes.

The 13-year veteran of the Ontario Provincial Police force and father of four graduated from the Project Trauma Support retreat and now acts as a "shepherd" for new groups of participants. 

Sense of connection

The idea behind the retreat, created by Perth, Ont.-based family and emergency physician Dr. Manuela Joannou, is to develop peer connections and for participants to be surrounded by people with stories very much like their own, she said. 

Dr. Manuela Joannou, a family and emergency room physician from Perth, established the Project Trauma Support program. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

For Hughes and many participants, it was difficult to get started.

"The morning I was supposed to go to the program, I got to the parking lot, I sat in my car for 20 minutes before I was able to get out. Right up until the first time I sat with my brothers in the circle and we started to share, right up until that point I was, extremely anxious," said Hughes.

"A big part of me not wanting to go is just that anxiety of connecting again. I'd lost that connection for so long. I'd been alone for so long." 

When Hughes took part in the program, the group was composed of men. During the session when Ottawa Morning's Hallie Cotnam paid a visit, everyone was female.

It's really comforting to know there are other people feeling the same way I do.- Lauren, Ottawa police officer on leave due to PTSD- Lauren, Ottawa police officer on leave due to PTSD

For Lauren, an Ottawa police officer on leave for PTSD, it's a relief to finally find people who have experienced similar traumatic events.

She was one of the first responders on the scene of the fatal 2013 bus-train crash in Barrhaven and said you never know what situations will come back to haunt your thoughts.

"It's really comforting to know there are other people feeling the same way I do and having those same emotions and doubts about yourself and struggles," she said.

"Sometimes when you're alone at home you feel like the only one and you're kind of lost and being here with the group of ladies has been pretty enlightening."

Once she and the others complete the week's activities of meditation, physical fitness and team building, they'll go on to shepherd future participants.

Looking for results

Dr. Edward Murray is a clinical psychologist who specializes in PTSD. He spent 20 years with the OPP and retired as a detective sergeant with the behavioural sciences section.

He helped develop the program and describes what he sees as the week progresses.

"Enormous changes. Laughter. A sense of reaching out towards each other, wanting to help," he said.

"[They have a sense] that their life's not over. That they can get out of this really dark place where they've been stuck, some of them for many years."

Both he and Joannou hope the program will grow and to fill a treatment gap. But Joannou says Project Trauma Support can't be called treatment until there are tangible, measurable results.

That's why a researcher from the University of Manitoba is with the group, collecting data.

If the program is officially tagged as treatment it will attract more funding, as well as referrals from insurance agencies and the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board.