After taking part in a pilot program at Dimensions Algonquin Highlands, Scott Atkinson says former military personnel will benefit from Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) officially approving the initiative.

It means the retreat on the shores of Maple Lake will be able to offer its ELEVATE for Veterans-Only Program monthly to participants starting in July.

Atkinson was in the military for 25 years before being released in 2018. He struggled with opioids and alcohol, admitting, “I was in a horrible spot at one time.” He continues to work on himself and with volunteers at CannaConnect, a drop-in clinic for vets in Ottawa.

He said things such as the 10-day pilot at Dimensions, “helps me move forward in life, and to help other people move forward in life.” He added the Haliburton County location helped him connect mind, body and spirit to better understand himself. He said the space and program allows vets to get to the “next level of where your mind can be, just with breathing, just with meditation. It really works to show how important this is in life and in healing.”

Atkinson added veterans today are open to things such as yoga, and ceremony, and want to learn. “They want to get away from the alcohol, the pills, and they’re learning this is a better way to do it.”

Not only do the vets benefit, he said, but their families too. He is now getting to know an estranged 29-year-old daughter and a granddaughter.

“It’s how much you put into it, right? I was in the army for 25 years. I was a rugby player. I was a drinker and now I’m becoming a yoga instructor. It’s not that every day is great, but you can learn to handle darker days.”

Co-founder and CEO, Chris Dawson, said getting the go-ahead from VAC is a game changer for Dimensions.

“It’s stabilizing for us as a new business. But more importantly, it really is a clinical landmark for the organization. And the group we’re looking to treat are amongst those most in need in this country, if not being right at the top of that list,” Dawson said. “So, for us to be approved by Veterans Affairs, which means that Veterans Affairs will pay for veterans to come for treatment, is also an endorsement of our program.”

Dawson said it’s a year-long program since there is thorough assessment and preparation for the 10-day retreat and follow-up. He said veterans can suffer from both mental and physical health issues, which can include pain management via massage. “We may weight things one way or the other, depending on the individual.”

He added they emphasize somatic psychotherapy in their treatment, or what he describes as the recognition the role of the body plays in our overall mental health. It helps people process trauma stored in the body and nervous system. They have more than 20 psychotherapists and clinicians.

“You’ll see a lot of what might, on the surface, look like spa like treatments, but they are designed to prepare the body for the psychotherapy that they’re about to receive. And it’s a recognition that our body and our mind are connected on things like PTSD. If we’re only looking at one or the other, then, for example, the body might force the mind back into old behavioural patterns.”

Dawson said with 17 cabins, they will likely take 14-15 vets at a time and move them through the program together to form a community.

He said the program was developed over three years, with researchers and clinicians from Queen’s University. The pilot ran in the summer of 2022.

“The goal of the program is to improve outcomes in psychological functioning and well-being for the veterans, as well as eliciting improvements in their pain experience. With the support of a lakeside setting in nature; psychotherapy; nutritious meals; daily breathwork; and bodywork practices, such as yoga, Qigong, and massage therapy, veterans identify the sources and triggers of their mental health and pain challenges. Through the various healing modalities, their central nervous system is reset, and stress, anxiety, and depression symptoms are reduced. Meals are created around guests’ retreat schedule and dietary specifications and preferences. The ingredients and preparations optimize gut health and brain health,” Dawson said.