Calgary Health Foundation

War Games

At 19 most people are planning their futures, going to school, taking time off to travel, even getting that first full time job. But for some their path lies along a more military route. Ryan Forest joined the military at the young age of 19; he did basic training and then served with the 3rd battalion Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry in Afghanistan. But the hardest part for Ryan was coming home.

"It was stressful, lots of gunfights; IEDs almost every day. But compared to what I experienced when I came home what I experienced overseas was relatively easy," he said, "Overseas your training takes over. But you aren't trained to deal with the emotions, with the loss, to deal with all the horrific stuff of war. When I got back it hit me really hard."

When a panic attack that lasted all night sent him to the on base clinic Ryan was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and referred to Carewest's Operational Stress Injuries (OSI) clinic, first in Edmonton and then in Calgary.

The clinic was a lifesaver for Ryan.

Calgary's OSI clinic provides services to Veterans, active military and RCMP for those who have suffered stress injuries such as PTSD during their working career.

"We are very lucky to be an interdisciplinary clinic, which means we have psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, occupational therapists, and nursing staff. We have all the mental health disciplines under one roof to try and optimize the outcomes for our clients." said Dr. Stephen Boucher, Clinical Director of the OSI Clinic, "When I started seven or eight years ago a lot of the literature available around treatment concerned Vietnam War veterans and the outcomes of their treatment were pretty appalling."

Since then there have been dramatic shifts in how Occupation Stress Injuries and PTSD are treated. Most of the work is exposure based, meaning that the patient who has experience trauma is asked to relive those moments.

"These experiences often leave people feeling numb and we look for many ways to help them be exposed to their feelings so that they can get on with, and improve the quality of their life," said Marney Riendeau, Manager of the OSI Clinic.

Though the clinic has an excellent track record but the staff is always searching for the best way to treat clients.

"When you look at the results of exposure based therapies 60 per cent of the patients treated will have a successful outcome. Which is very good, but my question is always what about the 40 per cent that it doesn't help?" said Dr Bouchard.

Recently the clinic was able to implement a new treatment program as an option for patients in Calgary thanks to the generous donation of $70,000 to Calgary Health Trust from the Calgary Poppy Fund.

 A video game style 'Virtually Better' reality treatment system was purchased. The technology exposes the patient to a virtual environment containing the feared situation rather than taking the patient into the actual environment or having the patient imagine the stimulus. It is controlled by the therapist ensuring full control of the exposure to the programmed situations and allows the therapist to create situations to best suit the individual patient.

A patient undergoing treatment this way will don goggles and carry a common video game controller so they can move throughout the scenarios. Sound is piped in through headphones and the equipment also has a scents suite which can add the smell of things like carbide, diesel fuel, tobacco, even burning rubber to fully immerse them in the scene. 

"We've been quite astonished at how real this equipment does feel to these patients and it's not limited to only military service." said Marney, "It can also help people face fears of flying, addictions issues, and fear of public speaking."

Currently Canada only has two other clinics that offer this innovative method of therapy and the average age of people treated is 36. If you would like to support this initiative please contact Candace Lacina, Development Officer. 

"I want to thank the therapists and donors. This clinic has meant a lot to me. It's changed my life really and possibly even saved it and I am grateful to all the resources that are available," said Ryan.