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Behavioral First Responder: An Origin Story

Updated: Sep 12, 2019

A few years ago I was on a course with a prominent adventure education company in the sunny mountains of California. The students had just gotten off the bus and were still smelling of their lives back in the city. We sorted them into their groups and begin sorting through the belongings they would need and the others they could leave behind for our 14 day trek through the mountains.

We had a young female student on our course who was reserved throughout this process. This isn't unusual for a person her age and in a new environment with none of her friends or usual support network. I went over and started to try to build rapport with her as she sorted through her belongings. It was then that I noticed strange parallel markings on her arm of which there were three about three inches long. Being more curious than concerned, I asked her how she happened to get such an unusual injury.

"I was running from a dog through my neighborhood and jumped a fence to get away and scratched my arm on the top." Her explanation seemed plausible enough, and combined with gullibility, I let the matter go at that. The next few days on the course she seemed to be a remarkable young person: extremely competent and capable of the rock climbing and shouldering a heavy pack, which some of the other students were struggling with.

One night on day 4, I was placed in the student kitchen where she was preparing the meal for the rest of the group. I was keeping an eye on the burning and over-spicing of the food when I saw the strange cuts on her arm again. Half forgetting and half an experiment in human behavior, I asked her again where and how she'd gotten the markings and that's when things took a turn towards the unknown.

After I asked, she began to tell me of a home-life in shambles. Separated parents, bullies at school, and a general feeling that she didn't belong led her to a path of self-harming behavior. My heart broke for her as I sat there helplessly as she laid out her story and all the hardship on her plate crushing her spirit. It was then that I started to worry about what role I could play to help her.

Not having the first clue about behavioral and mental healthcare, my instincts (which were wrong) went straight to worrying about suicide. I felt helpless and unsure of what to do. Upon consulting with my co-instructor we decided that the best course of action was to call our supervisor (we had vaguely remembered that we were "mandatory reporters"). A quick call revealed that he didn't know what to do but that he would figure it out with HIS supervisor, the next in line. Well that call didn't go as planned when we soon learned that the director of the program was as clueless as we were.

Sometimes it seems that great ideas come to people. But, my theory is that, more often than not, you are thrust into an idea out of necessity. The fact that nobody in the organization knew what to do next with this person engaging in self-harm behavior was a huge and scary revelation to me. We think our supervisors will surely know the answer but when it comes to problems like mental health, I think this certainly isn't true. Given the current mental health crisis in our country, I KNOW this isn't true.

This incident turned out to be an amazing and eye opening experience. The student continued on the course without incident and was the shining student for me in that course. She gained confidence, talked openly with staff and students about the issues she was facing, and left with a new sense of self. All the things we hope for as we sleep on the dirt and stone with these students.

This incident led me down the path of recognizing the need for behavioral and mental health training in the Experiential Education field. Thus the Behavioral First Responder Certification was born.

The Behavioral First Responder is an online (or hybrid) certification aimed for furthering education and increasing awareness of outdoor educators' and administrators' role in responding to behavioral and mental health occurrences at our programs. Data show that our students, participants, and clients are much more likely to experience emotional or behavioral distress leading to action or management on behalf of staff than they are to experience a medical issue requiring action on behalf of staff. We must rise to the needs of our students, responding with empirically supported techniques and understanding, to further experiential education's mission of holistic student development.

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