News / Ottawa

Gatineau couple planning North America roadtrip to promote mental health

Tracy Guenard and John Rathwell were inspired after losing family members to suicide to travel across North America chronicling nature and sport as a mental health tool.

John Rathwell, Tracy Geunard and their dog Rain with a newly purchased Westfalia van in Gatineau Park on June 2, 2015.

John Rathwell/Contributed

John Rathwell, Tracy Geunard and their dog Rain with a newly purchased Westfalia van in Gatineau Park on June 2, 2015.

Gatineau couple Tracy Guenard and John Rathwell have always been lovers of the outdoors – but it was only after losing two close relatives to suicide that they realized what their adventurous pursuits really meant to them.

Rathwell’s father died in 2014 and Geunard lost her aunt just a few months later.

“Some mornings it was really hard to get up and get motivated while I was dealing with that loss,” said Rathwell.

“During that whole time of us going through that trauma and mourning of the loss, we spent a lot of time biking, skiing and outdoors. You just get on your bike and go and you can get a couple hours of nothing going through your mind. You feel better when you get back,” he said.

Guenard started researching why being outdoors and active made such a difference in the grieving process. She found science backed up their instincts: getting outdoors was good for the body and the mind.

Both creative people – Guenard is a writer and Rathwell a professional photographer – the two wanted to channel the experience into a project that would promote awareness of mental health.

“We were wrapped around the question of how do you make a photo project about the negatives of suicide,” said Rathwell. “But we’re both positive people, so it didn’t really fit.”

Instead, the two came up with Searching for Sero – which is short for serotonin, the chemical released in the brain that contributes to happiness.

With help from a crowd-funding campaign and sponsorship the two will embark on a photo-essay project across North America in spring 2016.

The road-trip will last two years as they travel in a restored Volkswagen camper van with their pup, RainDog.

Along the way Guenard and Rathwell plan to connect with people who have used nature and sport to deal with grief and aid mental health. They’ll document their stories in pictures and words online at searchingforsaro.com.

John Rathwell skiing at Big White Ski Resort in Kelowna, British Columbia on February 23, 2015.

Tracy Guenard/Contributed

John Rathwell skiing at Big White Ski Resort in Kelowna, British Columbia on February 23, 2015.

The trip is a leap of faith – the journey will be intense, they’re still working on arranging visas and Geunard will leave behind a steady government job in the capital. But the message behind the project is to make time for adventure and play, even if it’s on a smaller scale than the Searching for Sero road trip.

“It’s related to John and I’s loss, but before we had those events happen to us we were already active and using the outdoors to let go of stream,” said Geunard. “If you’re having a bad day, you’re tired with work or family going skiing or even just a walk and enjoying the outdoors always makes you feel better.”

They have already started documenting stories in Ottawa, while the trip’s itinerary will take them from America’s deep south to Canada’s northern territories.

“It’s been busy, but it’s been really interesting,” said Geunard. “We’ve received a lot of positive messages from people who have already been inspired by what we’re doing.”

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