“Be wild; that is how to clear the river.”
(Clarissa Pinkola Estes)
The World Health Organisation (WHO) state that 1 in 4 people in the world will be affected by mental health issues at some point in their lives. This in theory means that if we ourselves are not affected someone close to us will be.
In the past 5 years particularly, I have seen a rise in people, both adults and children who come on trips with me who are on medication for or have been diagnosed with anxiety and depression. Is this because people are feeling more comfortable discussing mental health related issues? Or are Dr’s diagnosing more readily or is there a genuine increase of prevalence of Mental Health Disorders? For us as expedition leaders and professional outdoors folk, we have a duty of care to our clients. There is no way of predicting how someone is going to handle a situation or experience and what emotional baggage someone has packed in their mental suitcase. Nor indeed what personal demons they are facing in their lives.
The topic of mental health has been and still is in certain circles a taboo subject, seen as a sign of weakness. Individuals are reluctant to admit something is wrong in case they are judged and deemed lacking.
The outdoors to me has always been an escape. I need to move and I need to explore, when I am confined to 4 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 I can’t concentrate, the world stops making sense. When I am released outside I then go temporarily crazy, cycle or run hard and then calm down again and I am ready to confront life head on again. I have witnessed this same behaviour with my dog Tug. She gets stressed and then she runs or jumps around and releases her tension.
If you suffer mental health issues, however mild you may believe them to be, they can still be debilitating and it is hard not to lose yourself to the the stress, anxiety or depression. Life stops making sense and you get overtaken 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, if not more so than a broken leg. You don’t have a plaster on as a visual cue to others that something is wrong and the stigma attached makes you want to hide it anyway.
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 for their community or herd their animals as a unit. We have lost this, we segregate ourselves, we can shop online, we can order food deliveries, we can go through our day to day lives if we choose, with minimal contact with anyone else and without leaving the house. Most of our interactions with others now are, however subtle or blatant, based on competition and comparison, whether school grades or at work. I am sure this existed amongst our ancestors, it appears to be a human trait to never be totally happy with what we have here and now. I’m sure our ancestors looked to neighbouring tribes and compared their flocks or the land they farmed. The difference is they went through the ups and downs life threw at them 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/survival courses over any other form of adventurous activity is that immersion into the wilderness, sitting around a fire, 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.
I find this myself, my life at the moment is hectic, I am bouncing one environment to the next with barely space to catch a breath. I love my life and wouldn’t change it but it often takes others around you to realise how stressed you are. I was out in the mountains scouting recently trying to deal with some complicated decisions beyond my brain capacity to solve. Stani, my partner stopped and built a fire, we just sat by it for half an hour drying out sweaty thermals. This simple act and the fire itself almost immediately put my life 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 power of the wilderness to heal and put life into perspective is greatly underestimated and under studied. This is after all our natural habitat and although most of us have lost the ability or wish to live like this, just taking a walk out, connecting our feet and our souls with nature can go a long way to helping answer questions and give 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.