Kids show grit for mental health

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iSTEP Games teach about PTSD

Edmonton Garrison kids put in a gold-medal performance this week as they learned how to handle post-traumatic stress disorders in their families.

About 18 youths took part in the iSTEP Invictus Games Gold Medal Relay this week at the Edmonton Garrison.

The hour-long event had the youths cap off three days of learning about operational stress injuries with a series of fun physical challenges such as mini-hurdles, balloon tennis and shot-put. For their efforts, these mini-Olympians got to stand on a podium and receive medals and ice cream from the red-and-white-garbed superhero Captain iSTEP, who was cleverly disguised as volunteer Tim McMullen.

iSTEP (Individual Success Through Empowering Peers) is a 10-week program aimed at youths whose parents have operational stress injuries, said Jerris Popik, iSTEP co-ordinator at the Garrison’s Military Family Resource Centre. This week’s games were part of a three-day summer camp version of the program.

The theme of this year’s camp was the Invictus Games, an international sports competition for wounded soldiers and veterans that will be held in Toronto this September.

“It’s the power of healing through sport,” she said of the games.

Operational stress injuries affect more than just the soldiers that have them, Popik said. These wounded warriors often seek to isolate themselves from anything that can trigger memories of their on-the-job trauma, which can be tough on their families.

“In a lot of individuals dealing with conflict PTSD from Afghanistan or Bosnia, their triggers can sometimes be children,” she said.

“That’s difficult for children to understand why Mom or Dad (don’t) want to play with them anymore.”

That’s what happened to Koen Winfield, 10, who has attended the iSTEP summer camp two years in a row. His dad got an operational stress injury a few years ago.

“Before, he was all active and wanting to play with us,” he said.

“When he got his injury, he was all acting kind of mean to us.”

Winfield said he was disappointed as his dad no longer wanted to play hockey with him outdoors, and became a lot less physically active as, due to a recent move, he had few other friends with which to play.

Operational stress injuries can have spin-off effects on children, Popik said. Kids may blame themselves for their parent’s sudden changes in behaviour, become super-defensive of them, mirror their angry outbursts, or develop their own anxiety disorders.

Conversely, family members can support someone with a stress injury by seeking out information on it, which can encourage those who are injured to get treatment, she said.

“If one person isn’t well, it doesn’t mean that everyone in the family needs to struggle.”

The iSTEP summer program teaches kids the basics of stress injuries, managing tough feelings and building self-esteem, Popik said. For many of them, simply seeing that they’re not the only ones dealing with these issues is a huge help.

PTSD can mean that your dad won’t want to play sports with you like he used to, said Winfield. If that’s the case, the best thing to do is accept that decision and not beg him to do so.

Winfield says his dad has also started taking courses on stress injuries and has become more active as a result.

“iSTEP helps me to understand what my family’s going through, and it really helps a lot.”

Popik said she planned to run a full-fledged iSTEP course at the garrison this September.

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Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.