Stu Skinner is an experienced expedition leader, mental health first aid provider, and the founder of the charity Changing Horizons. He wants us to normalise conversations about mental health, and is passionate about the mental health benefits of outdoor activity.
Finding Our Way podcast champions diverse outdoor voices and is proudly sponsored by Berghaus.
What exactly is mental health first aid?
It’s a first aid approach to mental health. It's not about being a psychiatrist or counsellor, it's not about diagnosing people. It's recognising those early warning signs or symptoms of distress and learning how to provide help on an initial basis. It’s creating a supportive environment – like the bandaging of first aid. That helps a person manage their emotions, and process their thoughts and feelings. It can de-escalate the situation, and then you can guide them to more appropriate professional help. It's incredible how powerful listening is in de-escalating a mental health crisis. I can't stress this enough: A conversation can save someone's life. People are afraid of saying the wrong thing. But you don't have to have the answers. You don't need to have the solutions. Don’t try to fix someone – just listen to whatever they want to share without judgement. Listening is powerful.
We know that outdoor activities can help people’s mental health. Is the industry doing enough to work with that?
It’s strange. Adventure providers are very good at promoting the wellbeing benefits of what they provide. But they do very little to train staff to support people when they do access those services or when they're in the outdoors. There's still a disparity between how we see physical health and how we see mental health. My ultimate aim is that wherever someone has to have a first aid qualification, they should also have a mental health first aid qualification. We should have as many mental health first aiders as we do first aiders, because we need those skills and awareness to best support participants and each other.
Expeditions put participants out of their comfort zones, without their usual support networks. Are leaders equipped to deal with that?
As expedition leaders, we always talk about physical health and safety, we talk about the environment, drinking water, putting sunscreen on and taking your malaria tablets, making sure your feet are dry at the end of the day. But there's this idea that perhaps we're pampering to people if we start talking about feelings and emotions and that we should 'buckle up' and just get on with it. One expedition company, World Challenge UK, have made a very bold step to make mental health first aid mandatory for all their expedition leaders and operational staff. They’re saying, ‘we take mental health as seriously as physical health. We believe that all young people should have their mental health supported on expeditions and we want to make expeditions more inclusive for young people'. That’s incredible. Things are changing.
What triggered your interest in the outdoors and mental health education?
My own mental health journey. When I was 19 I went through a very traumatic experience, and that mental health challenge developed into a mental health diagnosis. I really struggled with self-harm and suicidal thoughts and ultimately I made an attempt on my life which I was very lucky to survive. But I would be told 'You'll be fine', and, "What have you got to be depressed about? You've got good friends, good family, a good life!" That wasn't very helpful. But also I didn't want to accept that I had a mental illness. And it's very hard to get help and get better unless you're prepared to accept that you do have a challenge or an illness. That’s the problem with stigma. Not only is recovery possible, it's more than probable these days because there's so much effective treatment out there, and many places, organisations and individuals where we can get help. More people need to know that.
What does trekking mean to you?
Changing Horizons Website
Every Mind Matters: NHS Website
The Seven Summits Sinai Trail
World Challenge UK
Meet our guests from Season 1:
Rehna Yaseen: Free kit, ‘BAME’ and inspiring young South Asians
Euan Ryan: Making films, climbing and hidden disabilities
Bonita Norris: Everest, ethics and disordered eating
Rob Mitchell: Cake, maps, and gay, bi- & trans lads outdoors
Cherelle Harding: Urban community, reggae and rolling down hills
Stu Skinner: Deserts, jungles and mental health training
Finding Our Way is sponsored by Berghaus, and hosted by BMC walking ambassador Mary-Ann Ochota and expedition leader and equity champion Cress Allwood. Our editor is Chris Stone.
Get involved with the conversation by sharing your thoughts on the BMC Instagram and Twitter using the hashtag #FindingOurWay.
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Finding Our Way is the new BMC podcast where our guests are as diverse as the outdoors should be.
Hosted by BMC Hillwalking Ambassador and TV Broadcaster Mary-Ann Ochota and Expedition Leader and equity champion Cress Allwood, the podcasts aims to diversify the people we normally hear talking about the outdoors, celebrate their stories and shine a light on their insights.
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