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Tackle those hills on the road, and in life: therapist

By Morgan Ian Adams, Enterprise-Bulletin

Therapist and Team Unbreakable developer, Dan McGann, with two of his graduates, Sara Testani (left) and Noelle Hooker. The three made presentations to Jean Vanier High School students and parents on Wednesday, May 8, 2013. Morgan Ian Adams/Collingwood Enterprise-Bulletin

Therapist and Team Unbreakable developer, Dan McGann, with two of his graduates, Sara Testani (left) and Noelle Hooker. The three made presentations to Jean Vanier High School students and parents on Wednesday, May 8, 2013. Morgan Ian Adams/Collingwood Enterprise-Bulletin

(Editor's note: this story is updated from a previous version to include a reference to David Harris and the Cameron Helps organization and their involvement in the Team Unbreakable program.)

COLLINGWOOD — There are always hills to climb.

And yet, notes therapist and social worker Dan McGann, those hills eventually don’t seem so big when you approach them with the attitude of finding a solution to conquer them.

The man who developed the therapeutic run program at the Credit Valley Hospital — a program that encourages teens with anxiety, depression and addiction to run as a means of dealing with their mental health issues — spoke to the Jean Vanier Parent Council, Wednesday night; earlier in the afternoon, he made a presentation to students at the high school.

“We are the authors of our own reality, we create the experience of what we do, regardless of the challenges of our own upbringing” said McGann, who grew up in Collingwood, and reflected on his own challenges with addiction and depression, both as a teen and as an adult. “It’s how we transfer those experiences to lift us up, and not drag us down.

“We’re conditioned by our culture to focus on why we’ve fallen down, not on how we get up.”

McGann’s personal epiphany came in 2006. He had spent about a month in rehab following a depressive episode in his mid-40s, and turned to running, a pastime from his youth — both as a track athlete at CCI, and as a means to manage his personal demons.

In the middle of the night, he would often slip on his sneakers and run from the family’s home on St. Paul Street to Sunset Point, allowing the sound of the waves lapping on the shore to calm his mind before returning.

Rediscovering his love of running, McGann eventually built himself up to the point of being able to complete a marathon.

“It was a transformative experience... it changed that internal narrative of ‘you’re screwed up’, to ‘life is good’,” said McGann, now 55.

With his therapeutic skills, he realized how he could transfer running to his work with troubled teens. He presented the idea to his bosses at the Credit Valley Hospital, and it’s since been expanded to include the families of the young people McGann works with.

McGann’s run program got an added boost when David and Yvonne Harris joined the group as volunteer coaches in 2007; the Harrises lost their 19-year-old to suicide two years previously, and David created the Cameron Helps organization in response, to reduce the stigma and build awareness about youth mental health issues and suicide, and promote physical and mental health.

After joining as a coach, David Harris found the program so effective he put his money and organization behind the idea of creating run programs across the province, calling it Team Unbreakable.

McGann works on getting participants to not externalize their problems and blame others, but focus on taking care of their bodies, and their brains.

“It should not be ‘why does my life suck’, but what can you do to make your life change,” he said.

The program typically concludes with a community run, with participants taking on five or 10 kilometre challenges; some, said McGann, go on to take part in half and full marathons.

“Running is a metaphor for day-to-day living, and I tell my kids that hills are our friends,” he said. “You run hill after hill after hill, and soon those hills aren’t so big anymore.”

Other communities have followed suit implementing the Team Unbreakable program, thanks to the Cameron Helps organization, including in Collingwood where ultra-marathoner Nick Brindisi launched a 12-week program in a collaborative effort with six organizations: the United Way of South Georgian Bay, the G&M Hospital Foundation, the Canadian Mental Health Association, Collingwood YMCA, the Georgian Bay Family Health Team, and the Georgian Triangle Running Club.

Georgian Bay Family Health Team therapist Charlotte von Prondzinski handles twice-weekly runs for teens referred to the program by their family doctor, while Brindisi offers a second mentoring run group; both programs have a mentoring component, as well as inspirational speakers. The local program is coming to the end of week seven, and Brindisi says he’s seen a definite improvement in his charges.

Participants fill out pre-run and post-run surveys of their moods on a scale of one through 10, and Brindisi says he’s seen a two-to-three point improvement in the moods of the kids since the program’s first day.

“Some of the kids have been super happy with the program,” said Brindisi, who joked how his personal addiction is running, and “if I’ve had a stressful day, I’ll go out for three or four hours.”

McGann also brought along a couple of his graduates — Noelle Hooker and Sara Testani — who espoused the benefits of the Team Unbreakable program in helping them work through their personal challenges.

Both young women had been subject to bullying in elementary and secondary school; Hooker struggled with depression, anxiety and eating disorders in spite of her athleticism, while Testani hid the fact she has cystic fibrosis from her friends.

In dealing with her poor body image, Hooker said she began to diet “and it just got worse.”

After years of struggle, “then I met Dan and the running group.”

Today, she’s a coach and mentor with McGann’s program.

Testani said she was diagnosed with CF when she was four, and the concoction of medication she took to control the disease caused her to gain excessive weight — which led to the bullying.

To drop her weight, she stopped taking her medication, “which is like going off life support,” she told the audience. She then met McGann, and joined the group in an effort to help and inspire some of the participants with her story of her struggles with CF.

Instead, said Testani, she herself was inspired, and encouraged to admit to her friends that she had cystic fibrosis.

However, she also acknowledged her practice of going off her medication had likely significantly shortened her lifespan — not that she would allow that to stop her.

“I might have CF, but CF doesn’t have me... I’ll still crawl out of that bed and help someone, to show that they’re important.”

Team Unbreakable, said Testani, showed her “my life was important, so I want to show people they’re life is important.”

McGann said one in four teens — and adults, for that matter — struggle with issues of anxiety, depression and addiction, and of those, only one in five get help.

The Team Unbreakable program, he said, is less ‘in-your-face’ than other therapy groups and programs, which McGann says typically see a drop-out rate of about a third.

“Here, the teens show up consistently,” he said. “You know you’re making an impact when these kids show up on a Saturday at 8:30 in the morning to go for a run.”


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