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Not everything is a WFR problem: A case study in homesickness

Updated: Feb 18, 2020

One night I lay awake on my tarp reading and working on paperwork for the course. It was night number one on a 9-day experience where I was taking a group of young people sea kayaking, surfing, and rock climbing. We had just previously picked up the students at the airport the day before and without much fanfare got their gear situated, names memorized, and a quick group orientation finished up the first day. I was optimistic after the first day. This program specialed in students with ADD, ADHD, and LD diagnosis so it was always interesting to match the invidious with the paperwork that I had memorized the days leading up to the course. 

I dozed off after wrapping up my evening activity only to be woken up what seemed like nanoseconds later by a headlamp shining right into my eyes. It was a student who I’ll call Harry. Harry came to me with classic symptoms we often hear the first night including a stomach ache, sleeplessness, and a headache. Wanting to cover all my basis I asked how much food and water he had consumed that day and went through my WFR checklist. He then said something that caught my attention. He remarked, “If I could only talk to my mom, I think it’d make me feel a lot better.”

This statement was poignant for two reasons. First, it helped me to realize what was actually going on with Harry. Through years of training and keeping my Wilderness First Responder current, my bias immediately lead me to jump to the assumption that Harry was suffering from some sort of a medical ailment. I think on some level that’s what I wanted it to be because that was in my realm of training. In my wheelhouse so to speak. However, knowing now about common behavioral and mental health conditions I know that Harry was suffering from separation anxiety or, more specifically in this case, “homesickness”. Homesickness is one manifest of separation anxiety which can be a serious condition and is certainly in the DSM 6 as a common diagnosis for individuals who feel this way. Separation anxiety can often manifest when there’s a lot of uncertainty, which would particularly be true for a lot of our students who are coming to our programs, traveling for the first time, camping for the first time and all the other stressors our students endure to get to our camps and programs.

The second revelation that came with hearing his statement of pain was the assumption of a medical incident. When we train our new instructors with ~2 hours of curriculum training, ~5 on Risk management, ~2 on facilitation and then 80 on medical issues, of course, we’re going to view these incidents from that lens. Don't get me wrong, we at Alpenglow think that WFR and medical training is vitally important to keep our students physically safe. But, we also think that it skews the way we manage behavioral and mental health issues in our field. From misdiagnosing issues as I did with Harry assuming he was a medical issue, to needing some checklist that can be followed to “solve” a behavioral incidents, our medical training haven’t prepared us for handling issues that we’re most likely to see, that is of extreme importance to our students, and that can save our organizations money by not undertaking expensive evacuations. A reframing and reshaping of how we approach behavioral and mental health issues in our field is one of the reasons we think the Behavioral First Responder is so important for Experiential Educators.

There are many opinions on how best to deal with separation anxiety when it manifests like this in our courses. Something letting them call home to see that they aren’t missing anything and that everything okay is the way to go. Others think this is certainly the sure-fire way to get them to want to leave the course. Some other common treatments include getting them to talk about their home, writing letters to family members, and the myriad of other treatments. I also have never found the “magic bullet” to handle these situations. 

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