Mental Health and the Outdoors

Blackdog Outdoors, founded in 2018, offers free outdoor events to those suffering with their mental health. Andrew Higson, the charity’s founder tells us what it’s all about, why the outdoors is so important and the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I think it’s important that we can talk openly about mental health issues, so here’s my story. I work as a Civil Engineer, which is a high-pressure job, and for much of my early career it meant working away from home. Never the most academic of people, I progressed my career through an apprenticeship, so my pay wasn’t great either. Isolation and stress are not a good mix and I struggled with stress-related anxiety through the early part of my twenties. It was a very dark period in my life when I drank away the worries and piled on the pounds.

Thankfully, I then rediscovered my love for the mountains. I’d been a keen hill walker during my teens but had neglected that passion as my work life took over. Getting out into the hills on a more regular basis allowed me to create some balance in my life, which in turn has allowed me to better control my mental health (and my waist-line!). It really is my therapy. I’m now an avid mountaineer, qualified Mountain Leader and navigation tutor.

The idea for Blackdog Outdoor began in a mountain hut on Mount Elbrus in Russia in July 2018. I’d recently completed a Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) qualification with work. Conversation in the mountain hut was initially scatological but then we got onto the subject of why we were all there.

The majority of the team recognised mountaineering, and generally being outdoors, as our personal therapy. The challenge, isolation and escape from a fast-paced life was felt to be good for our individual mental health. There are many organisations promoting mental health support, and many promoting the outdoors, but few promoting the link between both. I decided there was an opportunity to use my passion for the outdoors to help other people realise those benefits.

Blackdog Outdoors is essentially a team of volunteers that facilitate outdoor events for those affected by poor mental health. It is a registered charity with the Charity Commission (registration number 1189191). We started out with just a sign-posting website that acted as a central hub of information, tips on safety, and so on.

Our first real lesson was that we hadn’t fully considered the barriers that may exist with our target audience. As the website became more popular, we started to receive feedback that, although the information was useful, anxiety (amongst other conditions) made it difficult for some people to use it themselves. There were concerns that ranged from a fear of getting lost to how to go to the toilet in the great outdoors. So we started to host group events that are free to attend, led by qualified outdoor professionals and supported by mental health first aiders.

Our events provide a safe, supportive and non-judgemental environment for attendees to experience a sense of adventure. To date we’ve held nineteen events across the whole of the UK, which have allowed us to engage with more than 300 amazing people. We cover hill-walking, climbing, indoor bouldering, paddle sports, and hill skills.

Our aspiration is to get the message to those outside of the mountaineering community so that we’re not simply preaching to the converted. Many of the Blackdog Outdoors team are active Mental Health First Aiders within our day job organisations. We use this to promote the benefits of outdoor recreation to colleagues who perhaps don’t share our sense of adventure, yet. We’ve also supported a number of corporate events to help promote improved mental health, including a group walk to Scafell Pike and a sponsored Yorkshire 3 Peaks event. We also write articles and blogs for magazines and journals within our respective professions.

It’s been great to see that there is so much empathy in the outdoor community. Blackdog Outdoors has no regular source of funding as yet, but over the past eighteen months some generous donations have helped cover some our overhead costs, including training for the charity staff. We try to make our events free to attend so that they’re accessible to all. In order for this to happen we have voluntary, donated support from:

  • Qualified outdoor professionals (Mountain Leader, Rock Climbing Instructor, etc) to supplement our core team
  • Aspirant outdoor professionals to help with group management (which also provides them with invaluable experience)
  • Mental Health First Aid qualified support staff
  • BMC insurance for all attendees
  • Advertisement of our events by BMC, Mountain Training Association, Mountaineering Scotland, Mountains for the Mind, and paddlesport clubs affiliated with British Canoeing

We are incredibly grateful to all the individuals and organisations that support us in delivering our work. It really is an amazing team effort.

 

About mental health

Every week, one in six adults will experience symptoms of a common mental health problem. This is a statistic from the 2014 APMS (Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey). Startlingly, the survey also highlighted that one in five adults has considered taking their own life at some point. These are sobering facts.

It’s not all bad news, though. As a society, we’re now increasingly well informed about mental health, with numerous organisations working hard, locally and nationally, to de-stigmatise and raise awareness of mental health issues. The promotion of better mental health is being taken up by many employers and businesses. There is also a significant body of research and practice setting out ways to improve mental health and emotional wellbeing. Hopefully the next APMS will show an improvement in the 2014 statistics.

The role of sport and recreation in improving mental health is increasingly clear – the NHS are even prescribing it. Benefits include improved mood, improved self-esteem and reduced stress. Many mental health organisations cite ‘green exercise’ as a means of improving mental health.

My opinion is that we’re living in a world that our minds simply haven’t evolved to cope with. Research suggests that humans have been around for a few hundred thousand years but only settled into societies around 10,000 years ago. The advance of technology between then and the mid-1700s was fairly slow. The 1700s to the early 1900s brought us the Industrial Revolution, flight and mass-production, leading to a relatively faster-paced life. But from the late 1980s onwards – whoosh – mobile phones, computers, the internet, affordable cars, affordable flights.

We’re sat at desks, behind computers and flying around the world when, in our deep subconscious, we’re still living off the land. This is probably over-simplified, but I essentially believe that the pace and stress of modern life is exacerbating mental health issues. Getting out into the hills allows us to reconnect with nature, something I believe we yearn for at a primal level… something that came naturally to us as children but many have since been forgotten.

 

The effects of COVID-19 

At Blackdog Outdoors, we’re very busy at the moment as a result of COVID-19. The necessary restrictions have forced us to postpone a number of events, which we hope to pick up again at a later date. In the mean-time we’re busy on social media with a campaign to promote ways in which people can manage their mental health during these unprecedented times.

We’re posting short videos every morning to (hopefully) inspire others to get out for a walk, or a bike ride, locally. The novelty of walking in the same area can wear off, so we’re also trying to encourage people to be creative while they’re out and about.  

One thing that I’ve been using, and promoting, is a free plant identification app called PlantNet.  It’s really easy to use: spot a flower or plant, take a photo, hit the tick button and voila, you now know its name. The fun bit is then searching on Google to find out memorable facts about it to impress people with. Fun for all the family!

I think that lockdown, although absolutely necessary, is having a bad effect on people’s mental health. Some people are facing the prospect of unemployment, families are trying to home-educate children while working from home, and essential workers are having to leave the security of their homes each day. Every person will be facing their own unique challenges, with feelings that might include isolation, fear, unpredictability, and immobility.  These are testing times so it's important that we recognise this and, within the bounds of social distancing, keep checking in on each other.

Hopefully, people who have taken up exercise out of desperation to leave the house during lockdown are now appreciating its benefits. Fingers crossed, eh? I’ve personally started to run more consistently myself, to provide myself with a challenge, create some head space and ultimately maintain my current jeans size. I want to be fighting fit for when lockdown is eventually lifted – those hills won’t know what’s coming to them!

Find out more about Blackdog Outdoors

 

Mental health and the BMC

I also sit on the BMC’s Equity Steering Group. The ESG, headed up by Cressida Allwood and James McHaffie, was created to help advise the BMC on equity across its activities. We meet quarterly to discuss ways to overcome some of the barriers that prevent under-represented groups from heading outdoors.  The meetings are attended by volunteers from the various sub-groups, which include BAME, Disability, LGBTQ, Women’s Development, and Mental Health.  You can find out more about the ESG activities on the BMC website.

The BMC ESG project that excites me most at the moment is a planned Mental Health conference for later this year (if COVID-19 constraints allow).  This event, aimed at outdoor providers, will include workshops, case studies, and keynote speakers. Blackdog Outdoors will be undertaking one of the workshops, in collaboration with our friends at C/A/M, and we’re looking forward to being involved in what looks set to be an awesome weekend.

I’m also inspired by the work being done by BMC volunteers in other subgroups, too. There is an updated Climbing For All handbook on the way, which will be an invaluable resource for those that support disabled people in taking up rock climbing. There are also a number of organisations similar to Blackdog Outdoors that are championing their own causes in great style. These groups include, but are not limited to, Black Girls Hike and OutdoorLads.


Get Involved! Find out how to volunteer at the BMC.

Volunteer Stories

This year we are celebrating Volunteers' Week (1-7 June) by highlighting the incredible and dedicated work of our volunteers through a series of volunteer stories. Each day we will be publishing a short written interview with a volunteer so you can get to know a little more about the essential role they play in the work of the BMC.

Day One: Stephen Quinton

Day Two: Mike Spooner

Day Three: Graeme Hill

Day Four: Andrew Higson, Mental Health and the Outdoors

Day Five: Updated volunteer info pages and NEW Volunteering Handbook

Fill out our Training Needs Survey and let us know what we can do to improve.


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