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'Youth have really grown the project': Program uses VR to boost mental health in remote communities

A new Saskatchewan Polytech program is using virtual reality (VR) technology to improve the mental health of youth living in remote communities.

“VR is a good approach because of the audience we’re trying to reach and that’s our youth,” Martha Morin a youth advocate from Le Loche said in a promotion video from Saskatchewan Polytechnic.

Research manager with the Centre for Health Research, Innovation and Scholarships Lindsay Boechler said her background as a paramedic inspired the program.

“I've witnessed some of these barriers that a lot of youth, especially indigenous youth are experiencing, especially when it comes to mental health care and wellness support,” she told CTV News.

Boechler partnered with Dene High School in La Loche, Sask. in 2020 to kick off the program.

“We did some research there,” she said. “We conducted some focus groups and interviews. We really just are thinking at what were the existing resources, where the gaps in care existed, and what the community wanted to see happen.

She said the youth were attracted to it right away.

VR has helped youth from La Loche connect with youth from other communities, and they are looking at ways to expand the program, Boechler said. 

“We're working with clinicians to see how this could evolve in a safe and secure manner where they can offer some of those resources through VR. So it's really kind of grown through the use and the community's voice along the way. And now we're moving on to the second phase where we're starting to expand our partnerships. We're getting more interest from other communities to join.”

“Finding different strategies towards wellness, talk therapy is one strategy virtual reality programs are another strategy and so forth. The more strategies you have the more successful we could be at helping students become well,” Morin said in the promotional video.

Boechler said they started the program in 2020 and the pandemic impacted their work by initially preventing them from going into the community.

“When we were able to go to the community and collect the data, even though it wasn't necessarily a COVID study, the impacts of the increased isolation due to COVID and some of the restrictions were really highlighted in that data collection, kind of the long-lasting impacts.”

However, Boechler said there were some positive things that came out of the pandemic.

“It kind of forced the Health Authority or clinicians to offer some of their care virtually that they've never considered doing that way before,” she said.

“It's really opened people up to being open to providing services or services alternatively like using VR, rather than just face to face or over the phone.”

The program was offered to students at the high school in Grades 9 to 12 and Boechler said she invited all the students to connect and see the equipment.

“From that, there are about eight students, maybe 10, that have shown a great deal of interest in it and have formed a Student Advisory Committee for the project.”

“If I could take the VR camera anywhere, I’d like to take it to the beach and record a sunset and record even the nighttime stars over there it’s really nice,” student Brayson Piche said in the promotional video.

“Now the youth have really grown the project and have opened our eyes to have the possibility or what the possibilities are,” Boechler said. Top Stories

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