Jenny exploring The Peak District

My niece Jenny on a solo walk in the Peak District UK

My niece Jenny on a solo walk in the Peak District UK

Jenny, my niece, has been an active participant in “Discovery Quest” for 2 years; she is now part of their client mentor programme. Towards the end of her first year, as a client on Discovery Quest, Jenny was leading walks she had planned and showed great interest in pursuing this further. During her second year Jenny has taken training in navigation skills and this has given her the confidence to go off on her own, culminating recently, in a whole days solo walk in the Peak District. Jenny is now working towards her Countryside Leader Award.

“Discovery Quest”, which is a project of The Julian Health and Wellbeing programme, aims to help people experiencing mental health problems. Their website sums up some of their objectives as follows:

  • Regular opportunities to discover & explore a number of local wild places, including sites of special scientific interest and areas of outstanding beauty.
  • Engage in examining Norfolk wildlife, environments and history, enabling you to develop a greater understanding of the wildlife and landscapes in which you will be walking on. 
  • Actively engage in activities delivered by external organisations that provide environmental and conservation opportunities, such as the Trust for Conservation Volunteers, the Hawk & Owl Trust, Norwich Fringe Project and Norfolk Wildlife Trust.

From what Jenny tells me, it is essentially a “walking” project, walking being a major part of the physical activity of the project. Walks start easy but build up to become longer and more demanding as the group progresses into wild countryside like Snowdonia or the Peak District for example. As can be seen from the above elements of the project, exploring the natural world forms an important part of the activity and participants are encouraged to complete a workbook and prepare a portfolio in which they explore their understanding of the local wildlife and natural environment. This seems to become an essential part of more advanced walks and expeditions later on and participants become very involved in photography and drawing as part of the overall experience.

Clients on the project have the opportunity to undertake the John Muir Award. This is an environmental award that encourages people from all backgrounds to connect, enjoy and care for wild places.

Peak District 2014 079There are four challenges at the heart of the John Muir Award:

(1) Discover a wild place.

(2) Explore its wildness.

(3) Conserve.

(4) Share experiences.

The project has been hugely successful and this can clearly be put down to the professionalism of the team and their commitment to the group. They attribute much of the success to the physical challenge of the activity, the group interaction; sharing and relating to each other and members of the team. There can be a great sense of achievement on completing a tough walk, making new friends and bonding with your fellow walkers for a few hours, a few days or even a week.

I want to suggest another therapeutic benefit that seems to me to be a component of this excellent project. I feel sure that the team are probably aware of this but I don’t think it is explicitly highlighted anywhere in their literature. This is my belief that much mental illness is the result of an alienation from the natural world. A disconnect if you like from the Earth itself which is our home. We notice immediately how walking in the wild and observing the birds and plants out there in all their beauty makes us all feel better as human beings. We rarely question the nature of this phenomenon however; it just seems too obvious to merit much discussion. It is a little more interesting when we notice that the general trend away from contact with nature, urban life, materialism of one sort or another, not only seems to correlate with an increase in mental illness but also seems to go hand in hand with our neglect and destruction of the natural world itself. There is a relationship between the two.

This proposition that a close relationship with nature promotes our wellbeing is often seen as “spiritual” and perhaps that is somehow worrying for some people.

If it is so, and it may be, then I stress that it need not in any way be seen as religious or associated with a belief system of any kind. Spiritual (a concept I note is mentioned in the “Discovery Quest” literature) spiritual in this context, simply means that which involves a person’s inner feelings, those emotions that we feel often are difficult to describe, our sense of beauty, our adventurous and creative drive, and sometimes our sense of awe as we look down on the world from a mountain top or our sense of love as we begin to trust our fellow explorers and the wild world itself.

I want to discuss this more on this blog and offer some research and evidence for this claim. I also would like to encourage others to explore it further in the context of mental health. I am of course aware that it is not new to many therapeutic projects of different kinds: Vision Quests and Wilderness Therapy to name just two.

(authors: Jenny and Tony)



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