Reservist Captain Jill McLellan has found a new lease on life through her Healing Whitewater project. She is at the Madawaska Kanu Centre, furthering her skills. (Submitted photo)
Tackling mental illness through 'Healing Whitewater'
By: Patricia Leboeuf
Posted on Thursday, July 7, 2016
Reservist Captain Jill McLellan is learning to whitewater kayak to help her recover from her post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), severe depression and anxiety.
She created “Healing Whitewater” to document her journey through videos posted on her Facebook page. She is brutally honest in her short films, and shares every detail of her experiences, good or bad. She opens herself up about the injury she received while serving with the Canadian Armed Forces and never shies away from scenes where she experiences panic attacks or other discomforts. She shows her fears, her weaknesses and strengths and her illness in a raw fashion that inspires the viewer.
“I really want to show the whole process, show what it is like and ... share my ups and downs and what it is doing for my health at the time,” said McLellan, adding each video she creates is deeply meaningful to her.
Since opening the project up to the public, she has received incredible support. From Kenya to Australia, people have shared their own struggles.
“It is really emotional when I read the messages and stories I’m getting,” said McLellan. “Some of the stories that people have gone through themselves, I relate to.”
In the year or so since she first started learning how to paddle, she has grown tremendously, both physically and mentally. Gone is the girl who broke down crying her first time in a kayak. Though she still experiences moments of terror and anxiety, she pushes herself to overcome them. The water sport has helped her bring her scattered thoughts into focus.
Kayaking also gives her the adrenaline rush that first attracted her to the reserves. She noted many injured soldiers, regardless of unit or rank, miss that when they leave the CAF. Whitewater Kayaking and other extreme sports help to achieve that high without real danger and in a social environment.
“They really look after you,” said McLellan. “It’s like one big family.”
She is a member of the Petawawa River Rats, and has found them an incredibly welcoming group. Her main supporter, however, is undoubtedly her boyfriend Graham Kent. He has been with her every step of the way, and has encouraged her on her darkest days. He has been her anchor through the maelstrom of mental illness.
Soldier On has sponsored a boat, a life jacket and paddle, but Kent bought her first kayak. He is constantly on the water with her, aids her in confronting her fears and shows her how to refine her technique.
She has noticed her efforts are paying off in many ways. She has cut down on the amount of medication she requires, and she is feeling stronger in both mind and body.
“I feel better every day kayaking,” said McLellan.
She knows firsthand how difficult it is to admit to being mentally ill in the Army, yet she knew it was imperative to shed light on the issue by being open about her PTSD, depression and anxiety.
“I was an officer, so the way I always looked after my guys was by stepping forward,” she said. “I didn’t want anything to be a secret anymore... I wanted to be part of the solution and put my life out there.”
McLellan is being released from the Reserves. Once that process is complete, she hopes to make this project grow, giving her new purpose and meaning. She would like to one day be able to teach others how to overcome their mental illness through the beneficial attributes of whitewater kayaking; maybe even start up a program locally for others with PTSD to learn to heal through the sport.
She has even communicated with American Veteran and founder of Professional Transformation Sports Development, a program which raises awareness and gets veterans involved in sports, in the hopes of bringing it to Canada.
For more information or to view the videos, please visit the Healing Whitewater Facebook page at www.facebook.com/healingwhitewater.