By Luke Mielke
In February of 2022, CSAR announced its first-ever blog contest, open to both backcountry search and rescue members and non-members. The contest was judged by Matt Lanning of Chaffee County SAR South, Ben Wilson of Rocky Mountain Rescue Group, and Lisa Sparhawk of CSAR. The following article by Luke Mielke of Douglas County Search and Rescue is very timely given our current focus on mental health resources for backcountry search and rescue teams in Colorado, and won second place in the member education category of the contest.
The past two years have been challenging to say the least. Douglas County Search and Rescue has not been spared from any of those challenges. Last year, 2021, was particularly challenging with ongoing COVID concerns, emotionally challenging missions, and interpersonal communication breakdowns as people learned how to work together again after a year of isolation. For any volunteer organization, these problems can be detrimental. If these stressors are not dealt with they can build up, and people stop showing up or leave the team all together. How do you address these issues?
The recent Backcountry Search and Rescue study found that 68.6% of volunteers are at risk for burnout and 48.6 % of people had experienced mental health challenges since they started volunteering. Recommendations included mental health care and resiliency training for search and rescue volunteers, and rightfully so. That said, how do you deliver this training for volunteers? This adds even more training to the requirements for volunteers who want to be outside and not in a classroom. We are also talking about typically strong alpha types who can push through very challenging circumstances with what seems to be an incredible number of barriers.
A small group of people on our team are addressing this issue by becoming peer advisors. Earlier in 2021, we were fortunate enough to get a few seats in a peer support course hosted by the Douglas County Sheriff’s office, with the course instructed by Code 4 Counseling. This was a one-week, 40-hour course designed to certify first responders to be peer support specialists. The course helps someone build skills to support their teammates and provide valuable resources as needed. Peer advisors share lessons learned from their own unique mental health experiences or other life experiences to support their peers. They can also provide emotional and social support, advocacy, and hope as a living example of recovery. This can help the team and individuals manage minor stressors before they grow into crisis. Peer advisors can also help point people in the right direction when significant issues arise. It is important to understand that peer advisors are not meant to replace professional mental health care providers; they are not therapists.
Mental health care and resilience programs are uniquely challenging with volunteer search and rescue teams. People do not have to come back to the next meeting or mission. It might be normal not to see someone for a month. Is it because they are busy with work or family? Maybe a physical injury or even a mental injury is keeping them away. Peer advisors can follow up and help those individuals get back to missions quicker and healthier. This program is not meant to put people in a classroom, but rather to work with individuals directly on their specific concerns wherever they are.
A clearly defined program should be implemented if your team could use something like this.
- How would someone apply?
- What is the required training?
- What is the confidentiality of these conversations?
- Can your team provide resources for professional services?
As of right now, there is no state certification for peer support like there is for EMTs. However, several excellent courses help prepare individuals to fill this role. Peer advisors should ideally have personal experience with adversity, stress management, and healing to better connect with their peers and serve as an example of hope. While it is a considerable amount of work for the few individuals that step into this role, it takes the traditional training burden off the rest of the team and provides a considerable benefit. This type of program puts the skills and knowledge for mental health care needed in the field. When people are inexplicably short with each other, when they do not show up for training or missions after a tough call, someone is there to check in with more than, “Hey, how’s it going?”
Personally, as a peer advisor, I use my experience with depression, anxiety, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and moral injury to help my teammates when they need it. I have learned a lot through my struggles with mental health and seeking care; now, I can use that to help others. I’ve had to learn how to ask more and listen better. One of my biggest challenges in this role is not trying to fix things but advising or listening. Peer advisors are not meant to solve people’s problems but to help them get to a place so they can do it on their own, leaving them in control of their health. As peer advisors, we are also expected to be open about our own experiences and set an example to reduce the stigma around mental health.
We have paramedics, EMTs, and EMRs on our teams that help the people we rescue and our teammates with physical injuries. A very earnest effort needs to be made to do the same for mental injuries. If one of my teammates suffered from a broken ankle, I certainly would not tell them to wait until they see a doctor on Monday. Why would I do the same for someone who just finished their first body recovery? There should be an assessment, first aid, emergency care if needed, and routine follow-up with medical professionals for either of these situations.
While significant team issues like interpersonal communication challenges and stress from COVID might feel like stuff we just have to accept, a peer support program helps address individual problems, mitigates stress, and contributes to an overall healthier team. This is precisely what we’ve seen since our program began, and now our team is probably the strongest it’s been in years.
If you would like more information about DCSAR’s program or sample policies, please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org and we will put you in touch with Luke.
If you or someone you know needs mental health assistance, please call Colorado Crisis Services at 1844-493-8255 or text “TALK” to 38255.