Being outside allows minds to wander and wonder – Dr Adam Burley

Enjoying the great outdoors will improve our mental health, writes Adam Burley

Being in the outdoors is a regular part of maintaining our mental health

Mary Ritter Beard the famous American historian, writer and social justice activist, once wrote: “Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.”

The positive links between outdoor spaces and wellbeing have been shown to help deliver improved mental health, behavioural and learning outcomes. Is it time to offer a new mental health service by harnessing the power of nature?

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

For those of us who have experienced high levels of adversity in our earliest years, opportunity for travel has often been limited. And not just geographical travel, but travels into new experience and opportunity. The fears and anxieties that early trauma, neglect and mistreatment can leave us with, can be powerful barriers to psychological growth, development and exploration. They can leave us feeling trapped, limited and depressed, and in need of seeking out help from mental health services. They can also leave us uncertain about relationships with others, and whether we can trust in them. They can lock us down and confine us into a narrow range of experience, all in the service of avoiding further pain and anxiety.

Dr Adam Burley is a consultant clinical psychologist and on the Venture Trust Board of Directors.

It is interesting how often the mental health services we seek out operate within the boundaries of walled buildings and small rooms with closed doors. Independent of the quality of the care provided in these settings, one can see how, even if unconsciously, they might mirror something of the very psychological confinement they seek to address.

We rarely use physical activity, travel or outdoor pursuits as a primary treatment for presenting mental health problems, but instead invite people to come and meet inside the same doors and rooms over and over again.

In Scotland we have miles of open country in which we are all free to roam, inhabit and connect with. It makes up most of our landscape, but for many of us it is largely absent from our mindscape. To use this as an arena for exploring what lies behind our mental distress could make a lot of sense. To be physically located in such an open area can allow the mind to wander, and wonder. And where better to explore one’s possibilities and potential than in the company of a trusted group walking across an open moor or over a high summit?

Lockdown has shown many of us for the first time what it can feel like to have our horizons limited, and to experience how this can impact upon our mental health. As the demand for mental health treatment escalates, necessity should perhaps lead to invention. Venture Trust has well established expertise in the area of outdoor activities as a way of developing confidence and life skills in groups who have experienced hardship. Through the pandemic they have also developed services to support and maintain their mental health.

As Scotland looks to build back better, Venture Trust will be integrating these two elements into an outdoor psychotherapy programme. An inventive and necessary service in the face of a predicted “looming wellbeing and mental health crisis”.

To explore, tolerate the unknown, and build trust in yourself and others is as central to the business of psychotherapy as it is fundamental to the experience of travelling freely and safely through the Scottish Highlands. For many of us, being in the outdoors is a regular part of maintaining our mental health, and it makes a great deal of sense to utilise it as a key part of any mental health service. A place in which to explore, play, discover and grow. A place in which to connect with the land in which we live and feel its physical presence. A place to venture out and build trust in ourselves and others. A place to travel in, and as Mary Beard suggested, change something deep and permanent in our ideas of living.

Dr Adam Burley is a consultant clinical psychologist and on the Venture Trust Board of Directors. Find out more: www.venturetrust.org.uk