Mental health top of mind for Canadian Rangers as pandemic-related duties stretch on
Rangers pandemic work included assisting with COVID outbreaks, vaccine rollout in remote First Nations
Nearly 18 months of supporting the COVID-19 response on top of their regular duties has weighed on the mental health of Canadian Rangers in northern Ontario, according to their commanding officer.
"Effective the second of April 2020, we've been on operations and so we have supported [First Nations] through the first, second, third waves and obviously all the COVID outbreaks, the vaccine rollouts," Lieutenant-Colonel Shane McArthur, commanding officer of the 3rd Canadian Ranger Patrol Group that includes 26 patrols working across northern Ontario, told CBC News.
The pandemic-related support has included tasks like delivering food and water to quarantined residents, collecting mail, delivering toys and games, conducting wellness checks, liaising with chiefs and councils, providing transportation and giving humanitarian assistance.
That's all in addition to the regular duties of Canadian Rangers, which can include search and rescue missions, fire evacuations, flood response and responses to other social crises like power outages, water plant failures, mental health and substance use issues, says McArthur.
"Rangers are not first responders, but in a lot of these remote and isolated communities, they're the only ones who can react," added McArthur. "So we become, in an indirect way, first response."
Some members of the patrol group have been on duty for more than 200 days, which McArthur described as a relatively "long period of time" and "a significant feat," especially in comparison to a typical year for the reserve members of the Canadian Armed Forces working in remote and isolated areas of the country.
'They're mentally stressed'
But the work has also led to burnout and other mental and physical health challenges within the ranks, said McArthur.
"They are getting tired, fatigued, they're mentally stressed … you know just the stressors of having to be away from home, to be away from friends, family, all your supports, and then seeing some of the things they have seen."
Even for Rangers that are working in their own communities, the commanding officer added his members sometimes feel like they can't escape the crises they're called in to support, even if they aren't working.
To monitor their mental health, McArthur says the Rangers complete a questionnaire about their mental health before and after their periods of service, and there is a weekly forum discussion run by the unit's chaplain to discuss some of their challenges. Both initiatives have allowed McArthur and his team to monitor the mental health of the Canadian Rangers, and direct them to professional resources as required.
"I am pleasantly surprised at how well my Rangers responded to this crisis. No one could have foreseen how long this would have lasted, and they have been resilient," McArthur told CBC News in an interview.
The challenge that lies ahead, however, is that once the pandemic-related tasks end, the Rangers still have their regular, challenging duties.
"I have to make sure I have good, physically and mentally health rangers as we move into the future to respond to the next crisis. Because they will happen, and whether it's a small one or a large one, we need to be ready to support," added McArthur.