Depressed in paradise

Julia Bresalier and her group want to ensure that mental health services are available to everyone in Squamish

It’s possible to be sad, even in a paradise like Squamish, surrounded by mountains, ocean and fresh air.

That’s why Julia Bresalier has made it her mission to ensure that if you need help, if you need a counsellor to talk with you, someone will be there to guide you back toward happiness, Squamish style. She has worked for many of the social service agencies in town, including the Howe Sound Women’s Centre, Sea to Sky Community Services and Helping Hands, and currently works for the Ministry of Children and Families.

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Bresalier came to Squamish from Kingston, Ont. to ski in Whistler. One season turned into 18 years, she said in an interview in the sunny Squamish Adventure Centre.

She never lived in Whistler, even when she was working as a skiing and snowboarding coach.

“I came to Squamish right off the bat,” Bresalier recalls. “I thought it was a healthier choice than living in Whistler because of the lifestyle. I did not want to party.”

While many of her colleagues were about 19, Bresalier was already well into her 20s and ready to settle. She bought a house in Paradise Valley, something she says was like where 1970s TV character Grizzly Adams would have lived. She instantly felt at home and not long after, she met her partner Matt; together they have an eight-year-old daughter.

Squamish was a different place 18 years ago, a resource-based economy in which logging was central. The Woodfibre pulp and paper mill employed many in town, and the highway to Vancouver was too treacherous for a daily commute. It was a quieter time. Bresalier says she’s surprised when it takes two or three light changes to leave downtown at rush hour or when she can’t find a parking spot when she tries to take her daughter to Alice Lake.

But she loves that Squamish has attracted new people. “The people who have chosen to make Squamish home are bringing riches in terms of their attitudes and views… and their children. That’s really lovely.”

Working in social services, she has realized that the Squamish safety net has many gaping holes, especially for those who need mental health help.

“There are a lot of people who have needs that can’t be met here,” explained Bresalier, noting that most of the agencies have mandates that are very specific, and unless you meet their exact requirements, you can’t find help. For example, she says, a woman in a violent relationship can find help, but there’s nothing for a man here in a similar situation. And some services are there for people during a crisis but vanish once they are stable, even though they still need counselling. Only about 20 per cent of the population can find the mental health services they need, she said; the other 80 per cent are not eligible.

Bresalier and a group of others have banded together as the Tantalus Wellspring Society.

Brent Stewart and Ashley Lightfoot joined Bresalier last week to explain why the society is important. Stewart said couples who need counselling sometimes have to pay privately, at a cost up to $300 an hour. 

“Who can afford that?” asked Bresalier.

“The people who most often need help are the ones who can’t afford it,” said Stewart.

“The majority of services that are available are what we call reactive,” said Bresalier. 

Lightfoot said it’s important that parents receive the help they need so their children are born healthy. Stress affects babies even in the womb.

Through the Tantalus Wellspring Society, a non-profit group, “we really want to focus on the holistic approach,” Bresalier said. The society, which has existed for several years, renamed itself in 2014. “We wanted to start fresh with a whole new vision… a model that is both responsive and preventative.”

They would also like to use the region’s spectacular natural surroundings in providing mental health services by partnering with adventure tour operators to create Squamish-style counselling. For example, a family might go camping together to learn new ways to communicate as they pitch tents and build campfires, then come back to their therapist. “You are shaking up the patterns of how they interact,” said Bresalier.

The group has started with a series of wellness workshops. The two so far have focused on communication in relationships and mindfulness. Next, on Nov. 17 is a workshop about the medicine wheel, and on Dec. 2 is one about working through grief and loss. Details are available at www.tantaluswellspring.ca.

For now Tantalus has no office and no staff, but Bresalier and her board hope to change that. Their five-year plan includes having a physical space for offering psychoanalysis, walking meditation and a menu of other therapies, perhaps even linking clients with a hiking guide.

But even exercise can be overdone, she cautioned.

“The realities of life in Squamish is there are a lot of people who struggle with mental wellness here,” she said. “Some self-medicate with drugs, alcohol, physical activity…. Taken to the extreme, it can be unhealthy. People exercise to the point of depletion. It doesn’t mean they are having healthy relationships with people or with themselves when it has gone that far.”

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