What is Mental Health?
The Oxford Dictionary defines mental health as “a person’s condition with regard to their psychological and emotional well-being.” While this may pinpoint a precise meaning that may be useful in clinical operations, this makes it seem small to me.
Mental health is waking up in the morning. The way we react to the alarm. Mental health is whether or not we respond to that text. Mental health is trying to step away from a situation to view it objectively instead of subjectively. Mental health is pragmatism versus emotionally-driven decisions. Mental health is how we focus. Mental health is where our mind wanders when it has time to itself. Mental health is how we interpret what is said to us. Mental health is a lot of things, and these things, more often than not, do not fit uniformly into one envelope of understanding.
Regardless of how we define this state of being that so determines our happiness and contentment in life, it must be addressed that there is a stigma. How many times have you heard someone say something like, “I’m fine. I don’t need help. I’ll get over it,” or, “I’m not one of those people. I’m not some whiny baby,” or even, “I don’t want to get sent to the cuckoo’s nest.”
Especially in the United States, mental health is often treated like something only few people struggle with, and those who do, are seen as some anomaly of humanity. People like me, who work in the mental health field, know this is far from true.
Why Mental Health Matters
It is a fallacy to me that we argue the importance of mental health but not physical health. If someone broke their femur, would you argue whether or not they should get help? Of course not. The same should apply for the second half of our being, our mental health.
In any given year, one out of every five people experience mental health symptoms. When these symptoms go untreated, behavior can be conditioned to bring on new symptoms, a perpetual pattern. For example, if a person is depressed and does not seek help, they may choose to quit their job and sleep more. Because of this, they now are experiencing more symptoms, which further contributes to the deterioration of their mental health.
This is precisely what would also happen with physical health. If someone broke their femur and they did not get it treated, they may internally bleed, worsening their condition. If there is any protrusion, infection can ensue. These ailments could then lead to fatigue, loss of appetite, fever, and worst of all—sepsis-induced death.
But why on earth would we not treat a broken femur? If this severe injury ever did go ignored, I hope it is not because friends and family felt the person was being a baby. When our mental health is at par, we can be physically healthy, sustain healthy relationships, contribute to society in a meaningful way, work efficiently, and most important of all, we can reach our full potential.
Just as society depends on its citizens to be physically healthy, it also depends on mental health. This is not to suggest, though, that a functional society is the primary goal of mental health. It is not. The primary goal of mental health is to allow everyone to live their life to the fullest, societally contributive or not.
How Hiking Can Improve Mental Health
I am sure there are ample articles on hiking and mental health, but I’ve decided to ignore these articles in the hopes of creating something fresh. Instead, I determined what I believed to be the elements of hiking that make it so beneficial to our mental health. These elements, per my opinion, are exercise, immersion, sociability, and disconnect.
The link between mental health and exercise is no secret. When we exercise, we make our bodies happy. We do what our ancestors relied on for so long, what they had no option in. Just a mile run or a light lifting session can help offset the chemical imbalances that contribute to mental illness. In addition, exercise can increase our sex drive, elongate our endurance, relieve stress, improve our mood, increase our energy, stimulate our mental alertness, and better our self image, all functions that can do a great deal for our mental health.
When people exercise, they do so more often than not for their physical health. With this in mind, it is not uncommon for people to set unrealistic goals, causing them to become discouraged and deterred from further exercise. This is why I encourage everyone to exercise not for their physical health, but instead for their mental health.
I begun taking this approach sometime after I returned from the Appalachian Trail, and it has worked wonders. For me, this shapes the goal into just exercising, instead of having to exercise a certain amount, leaving me less likely to be discouraged and more likely to be encouraged to exercise more. I also find it helpful to focus on how well I do the exercise, as opposed to how long or to what extent I do it.
Especially in this day and age when people are spending exponentially more time than ever looking at screens, it is vital to be in nature. Nature brings us to our core, to a time when there was less of a divide between society and the natural state of the planet. It is recommended that everyone immerse themselves in nature for at least two hours a week. And don’t worry; you don’t have to drive one hundred miles to some desolate and remote location. Just a walk in a city park can work wonders.
Studies show that healthy social environments improve mental health. When we are social, we are more compassionate and motivated. I prefer to hike solitary, but nothing is more special than rolling up to a campsite or town to find my friends waiting giddily for me, pizza slice in hand (yes, you can and should pack out pizza).
Social media use in young people is an enormous concern for health professionals. More teens are diagnosed today with mental illness than ever before, and a direct link to social-media use is being found. In fact, it was found that a fifth of adolescents have a mental health condition. I know how tempting it is to check notifications, all the more reason I don’t let my phone display them for my social media apps.
Have you ever been in a dispute on social media? I know I have, and I refuse to welcome the stress levels it brought into my life ever again. But this is the problem. Communicating behind a screen makes people brazen, a real predicament if users are searching for validation from these sites. The more someone uses social media, the more likely they are to experience symptoms of depression.
Elon Musk’s Starlink project is working to give the entire planet wifi except in the polar regions. I watched his satellites traverse the sky one night back in May while cowboy camping on a high mountain of the California desert. I watched in awe, but this awe was also joined by a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. If his project succeeds, this disconnect will no longer be involuntary, and I worry this may change one of the elements I love most about backcountry hiking. If you’re planning a thru-hike, I can’t urge you enough to ditch the social-media apps. You can read about my experience with hiking and social media here:
My Experience with Hiking and Mental Health
There has been an undeniable improvement in my mental health since I adopted hiking and running into my weekly life. Before my Appalachian Trail hike, hiking was something I did a couple times a year, never mind several times a week. Disconnecting awards me a peace of mind that can not be met in other ways.
I also take great pride in the achievement of hiking, knowing I put so much time and effort into hiking the miles and climbing the climbs I did. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been lying in my tent at night and thought to myself, “Wow. I did *insert miles here* today. And not on easy terrain. Even driving that would have taken a while.”
When I exercise, I attain a new sense of clarity. For example, I was upset about a family situation a few days ago. I wanted to call my family and argue about what was going on. Instead, I chose to go for a run. When I was done, I was able to see objectively. I was able to see outside of the emotions I was feeling. I chose to not argue, and instead to talk when I got home. I thought about what would make me feel better. I called a friend I had not spoken with in a long time. It worked. The perks of physical health from hiking are a great bonus, but when I hike, I hike for my mental health.
Others’ Experience with Hiking and Mental Health
To further demonstrate the effects of hiking on mental health, I asked two friends of mine, whom I know accredit hiking to improving their mental health, to write short blurbs on their experience.
Matt “Posi” Shinn, is a passionate backpacker, an Appalachian Trail thru-hiking alumni, a Long Trail thru-hiking alumni, an ultra trail-runner, and a Vermont resident:
“My experience with backpacking as part of my mental-health self care started after I went through a hard battle with post-trail depression; It took me a full year to fully come out of that depression. I learned that my relationship with the world around me is much more pleasant when I am actively taking daily walks in the calm of morning to connect with myself.”
Greg Leblanc, a residential solar electrician from Providence, is an avid hiker and someone I took notice of attributing hiking to improving his mental health. He is a long-lost friend of mine from high school. I remember him seeking friendship with me despite the fact that he was an upperclassman, an anomaly of the school’s social dynamic. He talks about his experience here:
“Have you ever heard the expression, “Stop and smell the roses?” Of course you have. That expression couldn’t be more true. A simple disconnect from our busy lives and problems can go a very long way for our mental health. Hiking is definitely a great opportunity to do that. There are many little things that come from hikes like a sense of accomplishment, amazing views, and time to reflect on things, whether you’re by yourself or not. This world was meant to be explored. There’s a chance you’ll see something beautiful along the way. You might just find a hidden gem out there where you go for some time. As far as I’m concerned with mental status, if it makes you smile, just go and do it. For me, hiking does just that.”
It should not go unnoticed that Greg generously donated $100 to my #hikeOctober campaign, something that will contribute enormously to Hike for Mental Health’s mission.
What YOU Can Do to Get Involved Today
To donate, volunteer, or join group hikes for mental health, check out Hike for Mental Health’s website here:
I can’t urge my readers enough to go for a hike. Short or long, urban or remote, mountainous or flat, solitary or accompanied, a hike is a hike. Feed the soul.
To donate or view my completed miles on my #hikeOctober campaign, click here:
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Though hiking is a phenomenal way to boost your mental health, it is not a solution to illness. If you are experiencing symptoms of mental illness, it is imperative that you talk to a doctor as soon as possible.
Are you having thoughts of suicide or know someone who is? You’re not alone. Someone is here to listen. Call 1-800-273-8255 today. For more information, visit the site below:
Do you know someone who is having thoughts of suicide, but don’t know what to do? You can be the one to help save a life. For guidance, call the number above or visit the site below:
Are you in crisis or need someone to talk to? Help is here.
For a list of state warmlines, click the link below:
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Mental Health Definition:
Why Mental Health Matters:
Exercise and Mental Health:
Sociability and Mental Health:
Social Media and Mental Health: