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Climbing and... mental health

Photo by After The Send

Mental health is a hot topic right now, and so it should remain. Since campaigns to destigmatise mental health began a few years ago, the dialogue surrounding it has been loud and proud. No longer is it something to hide and be ashamed of.

In a country where funding to Child and Adult Mental Health Services (CAMHS) is seeing budget cuts nationwide and up to 20% of the adult population suffer from depression, we need to recognise the benefits climbing has for mental health. Both the NHS and the British Mountaineering Council (BMC) have recognised the positive effects between the two, with the BMC signing the Mental Health Charter for Sport and Recreation in 2015. There is solid scientific evidence to support this. Just this year Eva-Maria Stelzer and Katharina Luttenberger, of the University of Arizona and University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, revealed their study on individuals with depression and the effects of regular bouldering. Individuals that bouldered 3 hours a week over a course of 8 weeks reported lower scores of depression than those who did not boulder – enough to drop from moderate to mild depression. Luttenberger said, "Since rumination is one of the biggest problems for depressed individuals, we had the idea that bouldering could be a good intervention for that."

Additionally, bouldering promotes self-efficacy and social interactions, crucial for the treatment of depression. A follow up interview with Stelzer and Natalie Berry of UK Climbing confirmed what many of us already know – participants found it a safe space in which they could overcome their doubts and fears, and enjoyed supporting and being supported by their peers.

A quick web search of ‘climbing mental health’ will return a plethora of articles and posts of people who have embraced climbing as a therapeutic way to treat their mental health problems and maintain a healthy head space. Rebecca Williams, who is both a climbing instructor and consultant clinical psychologist, said, “For mild to moderate depression, exercise is as good as or better than anti-depressants. That's something that the GP probably won’t tell you, they're more likely to give you a tablet." She emphasised the importance of setting small goals to achieve which climbing undeniably complements – for example, completing a route you had been working on.

And so far we haven’t even touched on the associated benefits; the community, being outdoors and among nature, socialising and making friends. It is almost unanimous among climbers that the community is one that represents safety and is very accepting and non-judgemental. There is an immediate mutual interest with which to strike up a conversation. Being accepted by any part of society is of huge importance to people who have issues with mental health as it's one of the main instigators of isolation and depression. Caring is an intrinsic quality of a climber – we have to be, otherwise we’d be pretty poor at belaying and spotting!

Gerard West of UK Climbing talks about some of the friends he made at his indoor wall, and how he brought up his mental health issues;

“I consider these men and women to be my closest friends whom I trust with my life. They knew something was up, my idiosyncrasies and emotional extremes were not lost on them and I figured they needed to be clued in. It took guts; more courage than I had ever mustered for anything else in my life. I sat down with them over a period of time and told them in short doses, I started by just saying "I'm not well in the head." And they told me they had figured that out; they rallied around me and made me feel like I was still one of them, a part of the team and a valued friend.”

And as if you needed more proof, here is Fran, a climber who began her climbing journey here at The Project Climbing Centre in 2016. She blogs about her struggles with mental health and how climbing has helped.

If you’re interested in furthering the science behind climbing and mental health, consider filling in this survey for psychiatrist Dr Chris Rogers from the University of Colorado Denver.

For support and advice about mental health:

For further reading on climbing and mental health:

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