Back to the Bush: What should I pack for my mental health?

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Field work is a vital part of mineral exploration. For some, it is the best part of being an explorer, an opportunity to travel to new places with spectacular scenery, make new friends, and live in the bush for a couple of weeks at a stretch. But as the weeks and months wear on, people start to show the tell-tale signs of being physically and mentally exhausted, or “bushed”.

The stigma associated with discussing mental health during field work is gradually subsiding and more and more resources are now available to field workers. Sad, frustrated, stressed, and exhausted workers are a recognized risk of field work.

According to a recent story published in Nature Geoscience on Mental health in the field by Cédric Michaël John and Saira Bano Khan, the factors impacting mental health in the field can be split into two broad categories: factors linked to the environment in which the geologists work, and factors linked to group and interpersonal dynamics. Both of these stressors can be reduced with careful considerations and planning.

So, as we approach the beginning of the 2019 field season here in BC, AME asked a couple of field geologists how they prepare for field work and what they like to pack in their physical and mental field kits to have a positive field experience.

Before you go

Most companies or universities will provide training and a packing list to help newbies prepare for the field, and these resources are also available through AME. It is always OK to ask additional questions and for extra information.

As a worker, the most important question to ask is “where am I going?” said geologist, Anne Belanger, who has worked at camps across northern and eastern Canada. Belanger once arrived at a camp in the Northwest Territories in March wearing a pair of Canadian Tire insulated rubber boots. After suffering frozen feet for a few days in the core shed in the -25 weather, she quickly ordered a pair of -50 Baffin boots.

“Most of my work was indoors,” said Belanger, “But a core shack can only be so warm when you have been out in -30 for 10 minutes and only have insulated rubber boots.” She and others also advise taking winter and waterproof gear no matter what season you are travelling into the field, especially north of 60.

Murray Jones, Senior Project Geologist with Equity Exploration Consultants, has spent his career running projects in remote areas, coordinating every aspect of geological fieldwork, logistics and human resources. As a manager, his key message is preparation.

“The biggest stress reducer/sanity preserver/fatigue avoider is preparation, knowing that I am ready for all eventualities,” said Jones, “It makes it easier to deal with the few unforeseen issues that inevitably turn up. You can’t just show up on remote jobs and hope for the best.

“So, I stress before I go in the field,” said Jones, “Before a field job I keep a note pad by my bed to write down thoughts and panics in the middle of the night so I will remember in the morning and I can go back to sleep.”

Happy bellies

It is often said that the camp cook is the glue that holds a field program together. Nutritious, healthy food – and the occasional tasty treat! – keep up morale and fuel the bodies and brains of workers during long, 14-16-hour work days in often tough conditions.

Taking your own chocolate and coffee are suggestions from the Equity crew. Although your food essentials are taken care of, a stash of your favourite comfort food and perhaps the ritual of grinding and brewing your own coffee in the morning might be just what you need to get through a tough day. Remember, you might have to share, and be bear aware and don’t keep food in your tent!

“Enjoy being taken care of food-wise for the duration of your field work,” said Belanger, “The highlight of weeks of walking on rock is coming home to snacks and a fresh hot meal on a cold day.”

Happy feet

Standing for hours in a core shed or walking on uneven ground for hours each day can be tough on feet. The consensus from the geologists surveyed for this article is that nothing is more important that a good pair of boots that are right for the conditions and broken-in ahead of serious field work. Never skimp on boots. Or socks.

“I always tried to pack enough socks and underwear to make to the end of the job or rotation in case there was no laundry possible,” said Jones, “Fresh undies make your day! Outerwear is less important; it’s a matter of pride stretching pants and shirts as long as possible.”

Pack a positive attitude

Managing your body and your gear for the environment is crucial and many environmental issues can be resolved relatively easily. New boots can be ordered in. Spare socks can be borrowed. A forgotten toque can be purchased on the way in to camp. Pants can even be fashioned from garbage bags (ask the Equity team for that story!).

When it comes to mental health, there are some physical items you can pack to help you maintain your sanity on a long field stint but packing a positive attitude and taking the time to do what you need to do to support your own mental health are important, too.

“Don’t be afraid to take time for yourself,” said Belanger, “Whether this means work out time, TV time in your tent, reading a book or even taking solo time before starting your day. I prefer to wake up 30 minutes earlier than everyone else so I could have at least one cup of coffee before being joined by friends at the breakfast table. Sometimes you need time in the morning to adjust to camp life.”

Reading a book or watching a TV series or movie (downloaded before coming to camp) at the end of the day are also great for solo time. Try not to be too isolated, though. Games and group activities, such as a group project, a fishing competition, or an exercise group, are also excellent for morale and building comradery within a field crew.

“Archer Cathro are famous for their homemade saunas in bush camps,” said Jones, “Games are easy to incorporate into camp life. Nightly card games can become obsessive, which is perfect for “getting away” from a job that is in your face 24/7.”

John and Kahn list gossip, exclusion, antisocial behaviour, and lack of privacy as factors that erode relationship and build negative group dynamics, but they also stress that field work, if conducted properly, can yield benefits to well-being. Overcoming physical adversity or resolving complicated group dynamics can be a source of personal growth, even if the experience itself was negative.

They conclude that field work should be viewed as a balancing act between encouraging participants to push themselves to achieve personal growth, whilst at the same time planning the activity in a way that improves rather than negatively affects the mental well-being of participants.

-By: Kylie Williams

Thank you to Anne Belanger, Murray Jones and members of the Equity Exploration team for sharing their tips for staying sane in the field.

Looking for some pre-field work training? AME is hosting an Exploration Field Safety Workshop on March 16. Find out more.

Don’t forget to tag your field photos this summer to enter our social media contest! Use hashtag #AMEintheField on all social channels to participate.