Blog | Wilderness as therapy for mental health issues

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The World Health Organisation states that one in four people in the world will be affected by mental health issues at some point in their lives. In theory, this means that if we aren't affected by them ourselves, someone close to us will be. 

British adventurer, wilderness expedition leader and survival expert, Megan Hine, discusses how embracing the outdoors can remedy feelings of anxiety and depression.

'In recent years, I have seen a rise in adults and children who come on trips with me who  have been diagnosed with anxiety and depression. Is this because people are feeling more comfortable discussing mental health related issues? Are doctors diagnosing more readily? Or is there a genuine increase in people living with mental health issues? 

Expedition leaders and professional outdoors folk have a duty of care to their clients. There is no way of predicting how someone is going to handle a situation or determining what emotional baggage someone has packed in their mental suitcase, or what personal demons they are facing in their lives.The topic of mental health has been, and sometimes still is, a taboo subject. Individuals are reluctant to admit anything is wrong in case they are judged and deemed lacking.

To me, the outdoors has always been an escape. I need to move and I need to explore. When I am confined to four walls, or taken out of the wilderness and countryside, I experience a panic that rises in my chest, a form of claustrophobia. I start feeling anxious and can’t concentrate, and the world stops making sense. When I am back outside, I cycle or run hard and I calm down again and am ready to confront life head on. I have witnessed this same behaviour with my dog, Tug. When she gets stressed and she runs or jumps around to release her tension.

If you're living with mental health issues, however mild you believe they are, they can still be debilitating. It is hard not to lose yourself in the stress, anxiety or depression. Life stops making sense and you get overcome by an all-consuming sense of loneliness, helplessness and frustration at yourself (for not being stronger) or those around you (for not understanding). If you break your leg, you will have a plaster on your leg which highlights the fact that something is wrong. If you do not feel right in yourself, it can be just as debilitating as having a broken leg, if not more so. The difference is, you don’t have a plaster on as a visual cue telling others that something is wrong. The stigma attached to mental health issues makes you want to hide them anyway. 

Wilderness Meg Hine

There is still not enough acceptance of mental health issues in society. If you look to our ancestors, even a couple of hundred years ago, they lived as close-knit community groups. They would support each other and work together to better themselves and to survive. They would hunt and gather together or herd their animals as a unit. We have lost this. We segregate ourselves, we can shop online and order food deliveries. If we choose to, we can go through our day-to-day lives with minimal contact with anyone else, and without even leaving the house. Most of our interactions with others are, however subtle or blatant, based on competition and comparison, whether it's school grades or performance at work. I am sure this existed amongst our ancestors, as it appears to be a human trait to never be totally happy with what we have. I’m sure our ancestors looked to neighbouring tribes and compared their neighbour's flocks or land with their own. The difference is, they experienced the ups and downs of life as a community. We stumble through life on our own, desperate to make it work, longing for bigger and better, often with no support network. Of course we’re going to get lost, we have no map to follow.

What I have noticed when instructing Bushcraft and survival courses is that immersion into the wilderness, sitting around a fire, and working with natural materials is incredibly therapeutic to the participants. Add into the mix the fact that participants are thrust into the temporary community of fellow Bush-crafter clients, it never ceases to amaze me how people relax and gain a sense of belonging within a couple of days.

My life at the moment is hectic, I am bouncing around from one environment to the next with barely a moment to catch my breath. I love my life and wouldn’t change it, but it often takes others around you to make you realise how stressed you are. I was Scouting in the mountains recently, trying to deal with some complicated decisions when my partner, Stani, stopped and built a fire. We just sat by it for half an hour, drying out sweaty thermals. The fire and this simple act immediately put my life back into perspective. No matter what decision I make, I will be ok. One way or another, I trust myself to survive what life throws at me. It took a reconnection to the primitive me to remind me of this.

The way the wilderness can heal and put life into perspective is greatly underestimated and isn't studied enough. After all, this is our natural habitat. Just taking a walk outdoors and connecting our feet and souls with nature can go a long way to helping answer questions and give us purpose and meaning. Invite someone you trust along on a walk and tell them how you feel. It will amaze you to hear that, more likely than not, they too have battled or are battling their own inner demons. It is OK to reach out to others, it is not a sign of weakness that you feel the way you do. Your system is overloaded and you need help putting life into perspective and solving problems you have developed tunnel vision over. Nature will not judge you.

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