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Taking Care of Mental Health in Unprecedented Circumstances

From October 19-23, 2020, attendees of the annual Wilderness Risk Management Conference (WRMC) connected virtually to gain practical risk management skills, network with others in the industry, and help develop risk management standards for the outdoor adventure and education industries. Although this was the first time the annual event didn’t allow in-person interaction, WRMC organizers provided an outstanding educational experience that helped participants learn more about mitigating the risks inherent in exploring, working, teaching, and recreating in wild places.

Brendan Madden, Head of Program for Outward Bound Canada, spoke at the conference about his recent work regarding the risks of psychological stress— something he found all-too-present in the lives of this year’s attendees. With the advent of COVID-19, outdoor excursions and classes were cancelled around the world, leaving many outdoor instructors and enthusiasts stuck in their homes as the summer came and went. Lockdowns, stay-at-home recommendations, and an inability to travel took a significant toll on those who work and participate in outdoor programs.

Although Madden has spoken at the WRMC for the past 12 years, this was the first time he was unable to speak with attendees in person, so he was pleased to see the conference unanimously agree that mental health should be a top priority. With countries across the globe facing the greatest challenge in recent history, mental health needs to be a key focus in how we prepare for, and operate, outdoor programming.

Prior to COVID-19, Madden and Outward Bound Canada had already laid the groundwork for a new approach to mental health in the workplace. For the past three years, Madden and Laura McGladrey of the Responder Alliance have been creating strategies to help outdoor guides and enthusiasts deal with trauma and stress on and off the trail. When the pandemic hit, McGladrey and Madden were in the process of adapting coping techniques commonly used by veterans and first-responders to work for outdoor instructors and enthusiasts who may experience any form of trauma or heightened stress. McGladrey had previously developed a four-part colour-coded scale, adapted from the US military, designed to teach users how to self-manage stress in uncomfortable situations (on the side of a mountain, for example). Together, they were able to readapt this scale to something that specifically applied to stress and discomfort as a product of COVID-19.

At Outward Bound Canada, we see the positive effect that challenging outdoor experiences can have on one’s mental health every day. “We’re facing a tsunami of mental health crises at the moment, and Outward Bound Canada provides a clear antidote for that,” says Madden.

Through Madden and McGladrey’s framework, OBC has been able to re-engineer programs to continue running courses that promote the wellbeing of staff and participants. In terms of mental health, this is no small feat, and would not be possible without the proactive years of work these two have put in to understand exactly how to take care of one’s mental health in unprecedented circumstances.

As for the immediate future of OBC, Madden is staying optimistic. “What we do is teach people how to navigate in an uncertain world. We help them gain the skills and resilience needed to accomplish monumental tasks. The pandemic has a unique brand of uncertainty, but that just means we need to find new ways to overcome its barriers.”

Madden believes that Outward Bound Canada’s program delivery model is what allows the organization to continue functioning under these new and challenging circumstances. By now, medical professionals have discovered that COVID-19 is less-likely to be transmitted in outdoor, non-crowded environments. Madden and the program team have thoroughly re-designed the OBC field practices to further reduce the chance of a transmission during the program.