Megan's Hike 4 Mental Health
By Megan Hartwick
If you ask any of my friends to describe me, they would without a doubt use the word “outdoorsy” at some point in their description. I have one friend who says that every action I do only adds to an archetypal “Megan” she holds in her mind—everything about me is basically a walking stereotype for a nature lover. For as long as I can remember, my love for the outdoors was always present. However, my admiration for wilderness has not always been embedded in me for the same reasons.
My earliest memories include hiking through tall trees, spending days on long portages with my family, and building snow forts with my older brother. The outdoors has been in my life for as long as I can remember. I think I loved it so immediately because of the wild imagination I had growing up—television is scripted, with no room for viewers to add to the experience in their own way. But outside, everything is up to interpretation, and can be viewed in any way its spectators can dream up.
As I grew up and, like most teenagers, became entrenched in social media and technology, I lost touch with my love for nature for a short time. Little did I know how important it would shortly become to me again, but for a reason different from it had been in my childhood.
When I entered university, I had a pretty rough transition. My hometown has about 250 people in it; so to say Queen’s and Kingston were overwhelming would be an understatement. I began to struggle with my mental health, and wasn’t able to help myself. This was something I would deal with, alongside an incredible support system, for three years. I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and depression, and despite my doctors’, my family’s and friends’, and my own attempts to lessen my struggles, not a whole lot seemed to help. Until I found camp.
I started working at a leadership camp called Youth Leadership Camps Canada (YLCC) in the summer after my first year at Queen’s. Although this job was one I applied to and accepted out of my own volition, without any input from a doctor or therapist, this opportunity provided me with a the best form of “treatment” I’ve ever received: the outdoors.
Since that first summer at camp, I have continued to be profoundly touched by the experiences I’ve shared with the outdoors. Sitting alone on a dock as the sunrises, while a warm breeze brushes across your skin, and a bird calls in the distance—it’s hard not to forget about your own stresses and just experience the moment for what it is. Waiting next to a campfire for its last coals to die out, while crickets sing behind you, can lead to some pretty stress-free moments. Nature taught me to meditate, to practice mindfulness, and to exude gratitude in all that I do.
The outdoors helped me, in part, to improve my own mental health in ways I have never experienced from a manmade drug or therapy session. And I’m not alone. Many studies (http://www.pnas.org/content/112/28/8567) have shown that time spent outdoors can decrease rumination, the obsessive negative thoughts that often accompany anxiety and depression. The urbanization of our world can be linked to many mental illnesses, and spending time away from these urban environments can provide so many benefits for our mental health.
Nature therapy can be implemented to remedy not only anxiety and depression. Introducing green spaces to children can improve their attention, a practice which has been shown (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1448497/) to reduce inattention and impulsivity symptoms of ADHD.
Given how much the outdoors has helped my own mental health, and knowing its potential to do the same for so many others, I decided to act on this knowledge.. At my summer camp, we encourage our campers and staff to set goals, and two of my greatest goals have always been, 1) to hike the entire Appalachian Trail, and 2) to create my own mental health initiative. And that’s how Megan’s Hike 4 Mental Health, or MH4MH, was born. I am section-hiking the Appalachian Trail over the next 7 or 8 years in order to raise money, resources, and awareness for youth with mental illness.
Right now, I have decided to choose a charity close to me to benefit each year until I’m out of school and have more time to get into my own charity work. This year’s hike, the first of many, will benefit Camp Outlook, a charity based out of Queen’s University that takes youth described as “at-risk” on camping trips. I have seen firsthand the effect spending even just a weekend in the outdoors has had on these youth, and I so grateful to be able to give back.
For more information about my story and Megan’s Hike 4 Mental Health: