“Hills are our friends.”
It’s an expression Dan McGann tells the new runners he coaches through a 12-week program aimed at helping them deal with depression and anxiety issues and it encompasses the literal and metaphorical challenges his young trainees face.
The 52-year-old social worker started the Teen Run Group therapy program in 2006 after battling depression himself. When his doctor asked him to recall a time when he felt good about himself, he remembered running when he was a teenager.
“I remembered in high school, I used to run … and I would love to run along the lake shore late at night,” he said. “It was something that was very calming for me, so I started running again and gradually worked my way up to a 5k to my first full marathon in 2006.”
He now guides young people battling mental illness through a running regimen that ends with a community five-kilometre event. The program operates out of Credit Valley Hospital.
He’s witnessed amazing results. Teens who cut themselves, who are suicidal, who experienced extreme isolation and social anxiety have undergone astounding transformations. After conquering incremental physical challenges they report feeling more self-confident and proud, McGann said. They smile. They begin to feel safe talking to other kids their age and forge new and stronger connections to their parents.
One young woman named Hailey who used to cut herself used one word to define how she feels after participating in the running program: “Unbreakable”.
“I wanted to work hard. I wanted it to burn. I wanted to push past that because I felt unbreakable. That’s the word that’s just kept me together. It’s how, I like, describe everything I am now,” Hailey told Avery Haines in the second part of her five-part series Blinded by the Dark.
Energized by their new found physical strength, some of the young people go on to become coaches and mentors in McGann’s program. Others continue to run and plan for their now brighter future.
“There’s this internal narrative, this story within them that says ‘I can’t do’. I mean, that’s the whole story of their life, there’s so much ‘I can’t do, I’m not worthy’. It’s ‘why bother’ kind of stuff,” McGann explained.
Celebrating small goals every week “gradually chips away at that negative narrative and creates a new positive one.”
Trying to rouse a teenager from bed on a Saturday morning to go run in the rain is a daunting task — trying to motivate a young person suffering from depression is even harder.
“I’m a good salesman. I really pump it up,” McGann said. He uses short, inspirational “jingles” to drive home his point.
“When you’re faced with adversity, the worst thing you can do is nothing.”
“What you perceive you will receive.”
“Where your focus goes, energy flows.”
His early sessions often start with “a few tears” and frustration. There’s also anger, sometimes directed toward him.
“Oh yeah, I’ve been called a few choice names,” he said.
McGann shows his runners inspirational YouTube videos. He also brings in speakers to start off every session. Some offer motivational messages and others provide health information.
The group runs twice a week. Parents often run alongside their child.
“In situations where there’s just a lot of fighting and distress in the family and they don’t have anything to really positively connect with their teen around, I invite one or both parents to run with them,” McGann said, noting some moms have experienced amazing results as well.
The social worker’s energy and passion for his program is palpable. He’s led cognitive behavioural and symptom management groups where young people sit on couches and chairs and share their thoughts.
“The drop-out rate is at least a third,” he said.
The drop out rate in his running program is less than one per cent. He started with nine kids. Now dozens are involved.
“[The volunteers] often talk together as a coaching team about how working with these kids and these parents is a therapy for us. It’s totally inspirational,” he said.
The group starts with modest goals. The kids and parents start by running for one minute and walking for one minute at a time and incrementally increase that ratio for gradual endurance training. There are celebrations marking each week’s achievements.
“Each week is an accomplishment of a new goal, which leads back to my foundational belief about the effectiveness of this program, especially when I’m dealing with teens with low self-esteem, depressive thinking, anxiety,” McGann said.
The fall session wraps up with the 5k Santa Shuffle in Mississauga and the winter session ends with the Mississauga Marathon’s 5k and 10k runs.
Each runner has their own personal cheerleading team with family and friends waiting at the finish line.
McGann’s program has blossomed with several other similar groups sprouting up across the city and country.
The Teen Depression Running Group relies on donations. Brooks is a corporate partner, offering 60 per cent off running gear for the kids, but McGann said some families still can’t afford that cost.
If you’d like to donate to the program, call the Credit Valley Hospital Foundation office at (905) 813-4123 and ask for the Teen Run Program. You can mail a donation to the following address:
The Credit Valley Hospital Foundation, Teen Run Group
2200 Eglinton Avenue West
Mississauga, ON L5M 2N1