Life Skills and healing through animals.

Manitoba entrepreneur helping kids and youth dealing with mental illness.

People with animals at home know the feeling of unconditional love pets can provide.  Now that same unconditional love is being used to help adolescents with emotional and mental difficulties to get well.

Lil’ Steps Miniature and Wellness Farm in St. Malo Manitoba provides Equine Facilitated Wellness (EFW) for children and youth.  In EFW, children and youth engage in team emphasized or individual sessions with the horse as the teacher.  It is an experiential and process orientated experience for the child; where he/she will learn various life skills in a therapeutic and fun setting.

Lucy Fouasse, founder of Lil’ Steps, opened the doors to the farm two years ago.   Fouasse has spent the last 17 years working in the counselling field in many different capacities from justice, to mental health, and others.  But it wasn’t until four years ago when Fouasse was on the other side of the counselling, that she realized the important part animals can play in mental health.

“I suffered a serious head injury that left me unable to work and with a number of symptoms that made my day-to-day tasks very difficult,” says Fouasse who suffered from migraines, double vision, short-term memory loss, and anxiety.

“I purchased two miniature horses and would spend every day with them and through this I noticed a change in myself.  I was learning to be in the present moment through mindfulness and this helped my anxiety tremendously.”

Once Fouasse was on the road to recovery she decided to meld her love for animals and counselling background together to help others.  After doing some research, Fouasse noticed there was a definite need for this kind of counselling.

“I recognized that there were a number of people who would fall through the cracks of the systems,” Fouasse says.   “I wanted to create a service that was available to all children and youth and affordable through a sliding scale model.  My service fits around the individual as opposed to the individual having to meet criteria for the service.”

Studies suggest there is an instinctive bond between humans and animals. Our ancestors may have looked to animals for signals of whether they were in a safe environment or not. If animals are in a calm, peaceful state, the hypothesis says that humans are able to interpret this as a signal that we can relax.  Fouasse says each animal has different characteristics that can help people.

“When you look at the brain waves of a horse and how they are always in the present moment due to being a prey animal, just by being around them can change our own brain waves to do the same,” says Fouasse who adds horses are very intuitive and can sense the energy of a child, which allows a perfect mirror reflection to the child on their on their own energy and emotions.  “Recognizing our own emotions is essential in the therapeutic work in healing.”

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, It is estimated that 10-20% of Canadian youth are affected by a mental illness or disorder – the single most disabling group of disorders worldwide.

Today, approximately 5% of male youth and 12% of female youth, age 12 to 19, have experienced a major depressive episode.

The total number of 12-19 year olds in Canada at risk for developing depression is a staggering 3.2 million.

“I would say that one of the primary pieces that all kids walk away from is confidence and a better sense of self.  At the farm, you can be who you are…it’s a place to be and become.  The animals accept you fully and are honest in a non-judgemental way with their feedback to the youth on their behaviours towards the animals.”

There are many different animals at the farm, each with their own personalities.

“My five pound dog Serenity teaches about confidence and fear.  She is the boss of the farm,” says Fouasse who adds that sometimes lacks some healthy fear.  “We discuss how anxiety is a good thing for us and how this helps us to keep safe.  We talk about her confidence in that she is only five pounds (and then I usually cover Serenity’s ears as I tell the children this), but she thinks she is 100 pounds and this is how confidence works – if we believe we are bigger than we are then we can do anything.”

The farm also boasts three rats who teach the kids not to judge a book by its cover, a fainting goat who teaches youth about anxiety and how it feels within the body, and a 1200 pound horse named “Fleur” who can be pretty intimidating to a youth, but learning if kids can keep their energy relaxed and in the moment, they’ll earn trust and respect from Fleur.

In the last few years, mental health awareness has definitely increased.  Fouasse says she feels very optimistic that they are on the right track.

“I do think we have a way to go, however we are much more understanding and knowledgeable that we were years back,” adds Fouasse.  “I am hoping and dreaming one day that people can talk about mental health as easily as we talk about physical health.  We will need to be conscious on continuing to educate people about the truth of mental health and how mental illness does not define us.  Once we can recognize that mental illness is no different than different physical ailments and we need to be accepting, non-judgmental and open to helping others – than we can provide an atmosphere for people to heal – just like the farm does.”

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