Mental Health First Aid: How to Help a Fellow Hiker in Distress
When Aaron North greets a new group of teenage volunteers to serve on one of AMC’s trail crews for a week, he’s sympathetic. For some, it’s their first outdoors experience, and supporting these adolescents as they navigate new situations is one of North’s primary concerns.
“Being a teenager is complicated enough,” says North, AMC’s southern New England regional trails supervisor.
But recognizing signs of anxiety and other mental distress isn’t always easy. “We don’t know these people,” he says. It can be difficult to determine what their baseline might be when placed in a new and challenging setting.
Last fall, North took a step to help remedy that. He joined nine other staff and volunteer frontliners in AMC’s first Mental Health First Aid training program, a daylong course designed to provide trip and program leaders with basic skills to support participants struggling with mental health distress. Think of it as first aid for the brain.
The training, which provides intervention tactics for both adults and teens, evolved from data and anecdotal evidence indicating a “slow rise in behavioral health incidents overall” in AMC outdoors programs, says Colby Meehan, the organization’s leadership training manager. That seems to correlate with national trends. Nearly one in three adolescents ages 13 to 18 in the U.S. experience an anxiety disorder, according to the National Institutes of Health. Between 2007 and 2012, the rate of anxiety disorders in this population increased by 20 percent. Overall, one in five persons in the U.S. will experience a mental health condition this year.
Bill Fogel, training and education chair for AMC’s Berkshire Chapter and a school psychologist in Greenfield, Mass., says Mental Health First Aid training is “a terrific complement to wilderness first aid courses.” Fogel is certified in both youth and adult Mental Health First Aid by the National Council for Behavioral Health and led trainings for AMC staff and volunteers throughout 2019.
Introduced in the United States in 2008 from Australia, the training is built around a five-step action plan to support individuals who may be suffering from a mental health challenge or crisis. These “ALGEE” steps include: assess for risk of suicide or harm; listen nonjudgmentally; give reassurance and information; encourage appropriate professional help; and encourage self-help and other support strategies. For backcountry trip leaders, Fogel says, “This is how [they] can identify it more clearly and have a course of action on what [they] need to do and how [they] can intervene.”
Fogel also works with program participants to reduce the stigmas associated with mental health and to empower them to feel more comfortable in offering interventions and support. “We don’t always know how to approach somebody if they seem to be feeling off or if they are feeling down,” he says. “[But], we can just walk up and ask, ‘Can I help you? What can I do?’” Reducing someone’s feeling of isolation and establishing a sense of trust can be as impactful, and life-sustaining, as knowing how to apply first aid to physical injuries, he says.
North has taken Fogel’s training to heart. He’s planning a Mental Health First Aid training day for his seasonal trails department staff this spring. “Mental health is something going on minute by minute,” he says. “I’m trying to get them prepared as early as possible for what they are going to be seeing out there with these kids.”