Mental Health Awareness Week: Why I've never forgotten hillwalking trip to Campsie Fells with Glasgow teenagers – Ewan Aitken

In the early 80s, when I was a youth-worker in Ruchill in Glasgow, I took a group of teenagers on a trip up the Campsie hills.

It wasn’t a highly organised trip; I had a van, they jumped in, and off we went with more than a few sweets in our pockets.

The banter in van was full on. Lots of abuse and ripping into each other, with constant questions about where we were going and when we’d get there.

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As we travelled, I realised, despite the bravado, there was nervousness about this trip. None of them had ever been up these hills. But then, given few of them ever travelled outside Ruchill this was no surprise.

We were not climbing Everest, so the walk to the top only took a couple of hours. I clearly remember the moment we got to the top: suddenly all the banter stopped.

The view was lovely, the air still and the silence overwhelming. Everyone sat down on the grass and quietly contemplated the moment. For about ten minutes there was complete quiet.

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Then, one of our number opened a can of juice which fizzed up all over him having been bouncing about in his pocket all the way up. He swore, and the banter resumed. But just for a few moments we’d all be allowed into a different space, collectively and each of us on our own.

The power of nature to help rejuvenate our well-being means it is important that we all have access to it (Picture: John Devlin)

What did we do that day? We went up a hill, sat in silence and walked back down. Very little indeed. Almost nothing.

Yet of all the things I did with those young folk, they often recalled their trip up the Campsies as a special day, when something different happened, when they saw themselves in a different light, felt better about themselves, experienced a moment of awe and contentment away from the stress of getting through the day. It did, in a small but permanent way, change them.

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week. The emphasis is on the power of nature to help rejuvenate our well-being, how important it is that we all have access to it, and an opportunity to discuss how we can all improve opportunities to connect with it. If lockdown has taught us anything, it is the power of the natural environment to feed and heal our mental health.

At Cyrenians, we know this to be true from our work in our community gardens and farm. Time and time again, we get feedback from those who use these spaces of their rejuvenating impact.

The power of planting, growing, harvesting and eating what has been grown is profound and liberating for many. These spaces, and these activities, help build community and grow relationships by creating opportunities for us to connect with nature and connect with each other. The potential contained in that is huge.

Back in the 80s, I had no idea what the impact the trip up the Campsies would have. I was just trying to find something different to fill the day and hopefully build my relationship with the young people I was seeking to support.

But I have never forgotten it – especially the silence at the top of the hill, and the conversations about it I had for months afterwards.

Ewan Aitken is CEO of Cyrenians Scotland

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