New VR projects help rural Saskatchewan students talk about mental health

Click to play video: 'New project helps La Loche high school students connect to mental health services virtually'
New project helps La Loche high school students connect to mental health services virtually
WATCH: Dene High School wellness coordinator Alvera Hatch spoke on Friday about a new project connecting students in La Loche, Sask., with counsellors through virtual reality. Hatch said the project is still in the early phases but she expects it will make a big impact on students' ability to access mental health services – Apr 21, 2023

A virtual reality (VR) project lead by Saskatchewan Polytechnic and La Loche community is hoping to provide rural Saskatchewan communities with easier access to mental health supports.

“We are trying to address any mental health concerns and reduce any gaps in care (Indigenous youth) are experiencing,” said Lindsey Boechler, research manager on the project.

“They are pretty reluctant to say they need mental health resources, or it really doesn’t draw them, but you bring out a VR headset and people are attracted to it.”

The research team has been working with Dene High School students in La Loche, Sask., for three years.

A showcase in Saskatoon Friday announced the technology’s progression into the trial and development phase.

“Right now, we are just finishing that initial exploration phase where we are just gathering more knowledge and learning what the youth want and what they foresee this being,” Boechler.

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The purpose of Friday’s gathering was to grow funding partnerships so the technology can be built and ensure future sustainability.

Boechler said she was initially exploring how the VR technology could be used to offer counseling services to remote communities, but it has been expanded by the students in La Loche to a holistic view of wellbeing.

“They are looking at different ways to connect to other youth, share their communities and culture. They want it for educational purposes and to access and attend workshops that might not otherwise be accessible to them,” said Boechler.

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The project will help students connect with professionals if they might not be able to do so in person.

“We are six hours away from (Saskatoon) and our accessibility is pretty limited,” said Alvera Hatch, registered nurse and wellness coordinator at Dene High School.

“Even getting access to psychologists and all that stuff is a long, long waiting list. If you have this available in the meantime, at least they have something, an escape, somebody to talk to.

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“Sometimes it is easy to focus on the negatives, but our kids are doing great stuff that they should be recognized for.”

Hatch said she hopes it will be used to reach other communities in the future.

“I hope they can connect and be like a family.”

The team is currently seeking funding from corporate sponsorship to continue development.

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