More mental health resources needed for search and rescue missions, says advocate

·3 min read
Speaking at the public inquiry into ground search and rescue, Louise Bradley, former president and CEO of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, said mental health training for those involved in search and rescue operations needs to be more robust. (Laurie Trudel/Radio-Canada - image credit)
Speaking at the public inquiry into ground search and rescue, Louise Bradley, former president and CEO of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, said mental health training for those involved in search and rescue operations needs to be more robust. (Laurie Trudel/Radio-Canada - image credit)
Laurie Trudel/Radio-Canada
Laurie Trudel/Radio-Canada

A mental health advocate and the family of Makkovik teenager Burton Winters say more mental health resources are needed for both the families of lost and missing persons and the volunteers tasked with searches and rescues.

Their comments came during a Wednesday session of the public probe into ground search and rescue services.

"I had nobody to go to and nobody to talk to, nobody was there for me. Nobody was there for me throughout this whole thing," said Paulette Rice, Burton's mother. "Support is really needed."

The inquiry was established to examine search and rescue services in Newfoundland and Labrador, partially in response to Burton's death in 2012. Burton was riding his snowmobile home from his grandmother's house when it got stuck in sea ice. He walked 19 kilometres in the wrong direction before succumbing to the frigid conditions.

Throughout the inquiry, members of his family and experts have criticized the availability of resources for ground search and rescue in the province, particularly in Labrador.

During a Wednesday session focused on mental health, Edna Winters, Burton's grandmother, emphasized the need for mental health resources in the search and rescue system.

"We all have something within mental health that is going on within us," she said. "Mental health is such a key part of your everyday life, and we have to really acknowledge that."

Louise Bradley, former president and CEO of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, said search and rescue operations can be — and often are — traumatic for both the families of lost and missing persons as well as the searchers themselves.

She said it's essential for search and rescue personnel to connect with the family of the missing person and ensure they stay abreast of incoming information about the search.

"I think that in the absence of information, we fill in the gaps ourselves," she said.

She said debriefing with the family after the search mission — regardless of the final outcome — can help them cope with what has happened.

Bradley said she would like to see additional mental health supports offered to families and individuals after the search and rescue mission has concluded because of the potential psychological impact of such an event.

"It can continue to cause problems for people even years later, which really speaks to the need to have supports when and where it is needed and at the right time," she said.

According to Harry Blackmore, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Search and Rescue Association, about 50 per cent of the province's search and rescue missions are connected with mental illness.

Eddy Kennedy/CBC
Eddy Kennedy/CBC

Bradley said search and rescue personnel need to know how to navigate complex searches for people with mental illness, and should be trained in Mental Health First Aid.

"If I cut myself, somebody in the room will know what to do to stop the bleeding in order to get me for help," she said. "If I experienced an anxiety attack, you probably wouldn't know what to do."

Supports for SAR volunteers

Bradley said support for volunteers involved in search and rescue is also essential.

"I've listened to stories of the lengths that searchers go through and the hardships that they endure physically and mentally," Bradley said.

Blackmore said NLSARA, which is composed entirely of volunteers, has been fighting to get more funding for mental health training and supports for its members. He said the organization periodically holds training sessions on stress management and other topics, and the Salvation Army provides some resources.

Blackmore has asked that the $91,000 in funding that the province gives to NLSARA be increased to $1 million annually to cover better mental health supports, among other things.

Bradley criticized the miscommunication between the agencies involved in search and rescue — a running theme in the inquiry — saying it only compounds trauma for families.

She suggested a formal discussion between health authorities and the provincial government on support for ground search and rescue.

"As we have seen throughout this entire inquiry, there's always room for improvement. And yet again, communications — or lack thereof — has been a culprit."

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