At 31 years old, Jillian Millkey has slept more nights under the stars than most people will in a lifetime. The tough, joyful Coloradan began guiding hiking and backpacking trips in the Rocky Mountains in her early twenties. After a few years, she was leading backpacking and mountaineering trips in Alaska, Ecuador, and Nepal. Her Instagram account was a feed full of fit people, remote summits, and flawless sunrises, all punctuated by long periods off the grid.
But the highlight reel left out the tough parts. After a decade in the industry, Millkey hadn’t lived in one house for more than six months at a time and knew many co-workers who lived out of their cars or storage lockers to save money. She had trouble maintaining long-term relationships and struggled repeatedly with seasonal depression that forced her to take time off work. She watched fellow guides get injured over the years and had several friends die in the very same places that she worked. She talked countless friends through their own mental health struggles, including suicidal ideation. Something needed to change.
Guiding is easy to romanticize: you get paid to push boats through big waves, find untracked powder, and summit peaks. But making a living as a guide is precarious and complicated, and the unique challenges of the lifestyle—the constant transitions, the physical demand of the work, and the financial instability—can take a big toll on mental health.
In her years guiding, Millkey says, she noticed her peers and sometimes even herself inadvertently neglecting their personal well-being. It felt easy to live in the moment, focus on the current work and community, and put off planning for the future. But when the frantic schedule of each season ended, Millkey found herself overwhelmed and adrift.
“Before you know it, you’re in this pit,” Millkey says. “Your community’s dissolving, and you’re stuck there, trying to remember how to climb out of this hole you’ve just dug for yourself.”
Dr. Anne Baker, a postdoctoral fellow who studies chronic pain at Duke University, says that those feelings of loss make sense. Baker, who is also a licensed therapist, became interested in “post-trail depression” after hiking the Pacific Crest Trail over three years while completing her PhD program. During her time hiking, she often heard about end-of-the-hike blues, but people’s descriptions didn’t align with what she knew about depression. Instead, she realized, people might actually be feeling grief.
She conducted informal qualitative research, interviewing thru-hikers about their post-trail experiences, and her findings, she says, could apply to guides as well.
In her research, Baker pinpointed five significant aspects of immersive outdoor experiences: simplicity, purpose, adventure, community, and extreme exercise, or SPACE. These factors exist in generous measure during an experience like a thru-hike or a guiding season. Taken together, they create an ideal environment for a person to feel like their most authentic self, something people might not be taught to nurture otherwise, Baker adds.
“We thrive on authenticity,” Baker says. “We want to be seen by the world as who we really are.”
On long hikes, thru-hikers are given trail names. The guiding persona many outdoor professionals adopt during their season is similar. When the season ends, people may be grieving the version of themselves that felt possible during it, Baker says. And for guides, the whiplash of this loss, year after year, can be especially challenging.
In seasonal outdoor communities, the challenge of cyclical loss and frequent transitions can be compounded by extreme behaviors like substance use, adrenaline-seeking, and over-exercising. Flagstaff, Arizona–based Kate Stanley, who worked as an outdoor educator for a decade, first noticed this when she started dating a raft guide while she was in graduate school. Every winter, her partner struggled with seasonal depression and substance abuse. But with the return of river season, he’d be back to his confident, vibrant self again.
“I started seeing more and more of this cyclical stress and more and more substance abuse among my guiding friends,” Stanley says.
This is partially attributable to social and cultural influence, from both professional and personal spheres. Stanley explains that river guides, for example, work with clients who are on vacation and often interested in letting loose—and tips might be higher if the guide joins in. Millkey adds that outdoorsy communities tend to reward behavior that pushes the envelope, placing a premium on toughness and resilience. Whether that’s extreme exercise, excessive risk taking, or partying, the line between a fun lifestyle choice and a numbing coping mechanism can be blurry.
“You see people drowning themselves in whatever vice it might be: weed, alcohol, cigarettes, even exercise. But really people are just outrunning their problems,” Millkey says. “There’s this deep-seated belief that to be the best, you’ve got to always be going. Then you won’t need to be vulnerable—you can just exercise it away.”
Baker explains that activities involving prolonged extreme exercise, such as thru-hiking or guiding, might set people up for a cycle of chemical highs and lows. Exercise releases endorphins, which Baker describes as a body’s own opioids. If a person exercises all day, every day, their brain adjusts to increased activity in its reward pathway. Once the season ends and their activity level decreases, people often experience a corresponding emotional drop. And that drop can feel almost like depression.
“The bigger the high,” Baker says, “the bigger the low.”
Fortunately, Millkey says she’s noticed a gradual shift in the guiding world: people are starting to be more open about the hard parts. “The more of us that talk about the fact that we struggle, the better,” she says.
Kate Stanley agrees and is hoping to move the ball forward herself. Recently, she returned to school for a second master’s degree, this time in counseling, with hopes that her experience with the guiding lifestyle will help her support her community. In the meantime, she’s joined the board of the Whale Foundation, one of several nonprofits around the West, including the Redside Foundation and the Montana Guide Relief Fund, working to support guides and destigmatize mental health struggles.
The Whale Foundation was founded more than 25 years ago in memory of a much-beloved Colorado River guide, Curtis “Whale” Hansen, after he died by suicide. The foundation’s 24-hour helpline connects Grand Canyon river guides with a counselor free of charge. It’s busier than ever, says executive director Sam Jansen. The number of counseling sessions provided through Whale was up by 13 percent between 2019 and 2020, and 2021 looks likely to top that record. And the organization continues to grow. These days, the Whale Foundation offers an annual health fair, a health insurance assistance program, and a guide mentorship program. It also offers higher education grants in an effort to support guides transitioning into new phases of life.
“Guiding isn’t just a job that you have,” Jansen says. “It’s part of your identity.” Which makes it hard to leave the job behind, he explains.
Millkey finally stepped away from guiding two years ago. She got her EMT license and eventually landed a job as a safety officer on a film set. It’s the most sustainable work she’s ever had. She’s making significantly better money and has kept a room in the same house for two years—the longest stretch of stability in her adult life.
Her work still allows her to spend her days in mountains, deserts, and river valleys, and she’s part of a tight-knit community. Millkey’s social media account is full of peaks and striking skies, and she could beat most people in a trail race. In other words, she still feels like herself. And when it comes to her mental health, that makes all the difference.
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