Wilderness First Aid: Psychosocial Development and the Five Stages of Grief

by Michael M.

Throughout life, people change. Whether it is psychological or physiological, this change will always happen. Although many disagree about whether people change in stages or in one continuous movement, it is unanimous that people develop.

For our 10 hours of community service, Adam S. and I volunteered at a course called Wilderness First Aid (WFA), taught by Center for Wilderness Safety. WFA is a 16-25-hour long course that is open to all people 14 and older. It teaches how to prevent, recognize, and treat common wilderness first aid problems when definitive medical help is more than one hour away. Along with becoming “victims” for them, we also taught a session of the course called “Death and Dying,” in which we taught about Kubler-Ross’ Five Stages of Grief.

While being victims, Adam and I conducted an experiment. Upon finding us in the scenario, the students of WFA discovered that my good friend Adam was already “deceased”. I was only suffering from shock, a relatively easy condition to treat. But after a few minutes, I began to decline in health. Shortly later, I “died” as well. Following the scenario, we interviewed the group of students about their reactions to our predicaments. Adam and I agreed that everyone who was interviewed was all in Piaget’s Formal Operational Stage and Kohlberg’s Post-Conventional Stage. This means that they have abstract reasoning and know to do the right thing; even if it’s against the law. The Stages of Grief and the Psychosocial Stages were the ones of most interest. Adam and I concluded that the students went through some of the Stages of Grief while treating us. For example the man who was treating me, Ryan, age 44, became increasingly short-tempered toward his son, Patrick, 15, while my signs of life faded.

We learned a lot from the interview. The leader of the students during the scenario, Justin, age 27, had to relay the information from the students treating Adam and me to the rest of the group (treating the other victims). He told us it was easy to lie to the others. As the leader, Justin reported that it was easy to relay false information in order to keep the group’s motivation up because he wasn’t attached to them. He said it was “sad but true.” When hearing the news, Andrea, age 45, said that she was sad for the loss of life at such a young age.

This attitude can be attributed to her Middle Adulthood crisis, Generativity v. Stagnation. Treating people with first aid could be the way that she contributes to the world. Tucker, age 53, let us know he was surprised about the deaths; but people die. Ryan told me it was hard to accept that I had died. It was personal and he had invested time and effort into making sure I would be ok, even though I wasn’t. Andrew, age 51, is in Erikson’s Middle Adulthood Stage as well. Facing the same crisis as Andrea, he said to Adam and me that while working on Adam he felt the need to work on him no matter what. He told us it was hard walking away, but he found solace in going to help others. At this point Patrick said he just wanted to move on. Once again the student’s attitudes and responses to the situation reflect the stages of Erikson that they are in.

Later in the interview the questions got broader. What did WFA teach you about your psychological self? Did it help or hurt your view about your Erikson stage? Michael Skinnell, 46, responded by telling us he was more mentally prepared for a real scenario after WFA. Nicholas, age 15, shared with us that when he got home, he had to stop for a minute and wonder: what would’ve happened if it was real? It hit him pretty hard. I then asked if WFA helped him be more aware of the Stage he was in. He said that his experience with Wilderness First Aid reinforced it. When asking Josh, age 16, about his experiences, he said that WFA also helped his view. He said, “Wilderness First Aid [was] the trail to figuring out what you wanna do [in life].” At the end of the interview, Nicholas made another comment to the class. He said he saw stricken looks in the adult’s faces. “It felt weird”, he said, seeing them like that. He let us know he wouldn’t envision adults normally like this, as stressed as they were during the scenario.

Overall, the interview demonstrated to Adam and myself how much these developmental stages play into our lives. Thanks to Clif Castleman and Phil Gardner, program directors, and Amy Castleman, one of the instructors, WFA has helped many people not only learn essential First Aid for being in the outdoors, but has also taught students something about themselves. Although Piaget and Kohlberg’s stages were all the same for the students and therefore could be ignored in this course, both play a significant role throughout the rest of the world.

Erikson’s Psychosocial Stages as well as Kubler-Ross’ Five Stages of Grief were the key factors in our Experiment. Our experiment of seeing how the students reacted to our injuries turned out to be a success. Although there wasn’t a specific hypothesis, we did predict that the students would go through some of the Stages of Grief. From this experience with WFA I can clearly say that what we learned in the classroom about developmental stages can be mirrored in real life situations.