Depression and Wilderness, Part 2: Wilderness May Not Be Enough

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Home Forums Campfire Editor’s Roundtable Depression and Wilderness, Part 2: Wilderness May Not Be Enough

Viewing 25 posts - 1 through 25 (of 28 total)
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    Stephanie Jordan


    Locale: Rocky Mountains
    Luke Schmidt
    BPL Member


    Locale: Alaska

    First of Ryan I'm sorry to hear about your friend. My thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends (you included).

    Second I really like your thoughts and honesty on the matter. Since I've worked in Wilderness Therapy and occasionally fled to the wilderness myself when life wasn't as it should be I can relate.

    Having worked with troubled boys I can tell you that simply going into a pretty forest is not going to make all your problems go away. The stuff my campers did and said in the woods would curl the hair on a grizzly. Even though we were in the woods, they unfortunately brought all their baggage with them.

    Wilderness may not be a cure all by itself but used right it can be a "tool"

    -The wilderness gave us some "breathing room" where the negative influences of society were a bit more removed and we had a chance to give the kids some more positive influences.

    -Being in the wilderness taught our boys how to serve others. They started out as very selfish and distrustful boys. Over time through activities like building a tent or packing a canoe they learned the joys of serving others. This was interesting because the boys made the most progress when they quit focusing on themselves and focused on how to help each other out (unfortunately a lot of counseling doesn't seem to do this). As a side note a family member of mine struggled with an eating disorder for a number of years. Therapy helped some but I think what helped the most was when she went to work at a summer camp and then started mentoring inner city girls. This young lady started focusing on helping others with much bigger problems then hers and that helped her overcome her own issues.

    I think the following quote is very interesting

    "David never balked when it snowed, blew, or froze, and he had an absolute view that whatever wilderness offered, it was natural, beautiful, and exactly how it was supposed to be. David embraced wilderness for what it was and never boxed it up."

    Interesting that David embraced wilderness with all its difficulties but struggled with the "civilized" world. I think we expect physical challenges in the wilderness but are offended when the rest of life presents us with different challenges. There is nothing fun about a sudden death in the family or co-workers who stab you in the back. Things should not be that way. But I also believe nothing happens by chance and even the tragedy and injustice will work out for good in the end. This faith helps me embrace life's challenge a bit better. Maybe not as enthusiastically as David embraced wilderness but better then I otherwise would.

    David Chenault
    BPL Member


    Locale: Queen City, MT

    Cheers Ryan.

    Speaking as a mental health professional, I've always been skeptical of assertions that Dysthymia (depression) has much diagnostic unity. In turn, a lot of the so called evidence-based guidelines for treatment aren't as useful as they purport to be.

    Speaking as someone who has chosen to delve into some rather awful things day-to-day in that professional life, I view my own depressive tendencies as (to a certain extent) a sane reaction in the face of an insane world. Sometimes I want to get far away from everyone in the face of this, sometimes I want the opposite.

    Luke Schmidt
    BPL Member


    Locale: Alaska

    I should note that a family member who was briefly depressed (better now) had the chance to go on a long wilderness trip. That individual came home early because being alone in the wild got lonely after a while and wasn't fun any more.

    If you're clinically depressed (in as much as that is an accurate term) you have deep seated issues that a brief brake in the woods won't solve. Although I'd argue a regular respite might just allow you to cope until a longer term solution is reached. I used to do regular day hikes while working a really stressful job. Having something to look forward to helped me face life better until the issues were resolved.

    Edit – David I'd be interested in hearing more details on what you think. Sometimes when I'm down I need alone time. Other times I really need people (even though I may not realize it). I think it depends on the source of the problem to begin with.

    a b


    Sorry for the loss of your good friend Ryan.

    jason quick


    Locale: A tent in my backyard - Melbourne

    "I view my own depressive tendencies as (to a certain extent) a sane reaction in the face of an insane world. Sometimes I want to get far away from everyone in the face of this, sometimes I want the opposite."

    What a great perspective. Thanks. :-)

    John Donewar
    BPL Member


    Locale: Southeastern Texas


    The loss of "David" is a tragedy. You've lost a close friend and the rest of us, whether we know it or not, are diminished because of his absence.

    I have no expertise in these matters but I have experienced the inability to cope with life's daily grind.

    The love and support of family, friends and getting help are paramount in mitigating and resolving these issues.

    IMHO the wilderness can be curative but it isn't the cure in and of itself. As mentioned in your article, "…he was always aware of the reality that he had to exit the wilderness, and go back."

    We've all heard the saying at one time or another, "There is safety in numbers". Being with other people and sharing experiences like those of being in the wilderness give a person the ability to breathe.

    My trips into the wilderness are viewed by me as a challenge, healthy exercise and the opportunity to view the beauty of nature. Yes there is that element of "escape" from the pressures of the "real world". But the wilderness is also the real world it is just a different and much more enjoyable part of it. I have been reduced to tears upon reaching the top of a mountain and seeing the beauty of the wilderness below me. It also caused me to reach for my cell phone and call and share with my wife the experience that I was having at that moment. I should also point out that I was hiking with two other hikers. This points towards the "shared experiences".

    Taking a break in the wilderness, walking and talking or just "being" silent with someone else allows a person a "release" from the pressures of what many of us see in a normal daily life.

    The interaction of others and their ability to listen and share the load would seem to me to be very beneficial for someone like "David".

    Good friends are very hard to find and even harder to lose. Sorry to hear of your loss.

    Party On,


    Jerry Adams
    BPL Member


    Locale: Oregon and Washington

    Good point Ryan

    I have family members who have depression and one who killed themself

    People sometimes view people that have depression like they're just weak or inadequate, don't let that prevent you from seeking treatment, it's really just a disease that can be treated

    Sometimes, taking some drug will help, although it's better if you just do things like spending more time outdoors

    BPL Member


    Locale: Northern California

    Thanks Ryan for this article; I share everyone's good wishes and sympathy.

    I suffered with severe depression for years. I found tremendous help in standard talk-style psychotherapy. Unfortunately insurance companies don't like the idea of intensive or long(er)term therapy because of cost. But that may be what's required in order for depression to be alleviated–although I found relief almost immediately and had lasting results after a few months of work. I was lucky in that a local training institute had very low cost sessions available with third-year ph.d. candidates. This is a good resource for people living around universities! S.F. bay area, heads up! As luck would have it I was assigned to a highly competent therapist who, as I've said, helped tremendously. I write all of this to both advocate for talk therapy based on my experience and the fact that this kind of therapy has a high success rate with depression in general. Also, if cost is a factor, I hope that people would look into possibilities for low-cost treatment. And don't be shy about seeing someone more than once a week!

    I also know a number of people who take prozac or related drugs and have found them to be very beneficial. This may be a good route too.

    The main thing is to do something! Depression is hell; worse still, it saps your will to try to move out of it. Help is available to emerge from depression: prozac and the newer style drugs will help to get you out of unbearable misery, so that you can make good choices about what to do next. Millions of people take these drugs; depression is widespread. Do tell your doctor, or look for community based resources, or borrow money from your uncle for therapy, or all of the above! Depression is the most successfully treated symptom of all psychological disorders. Fact. Being out of depression is priceless.

    Bradley Danyluk
    BPL Member


    I think the psychological benefits of being in the wild may not necessarily actually come wholly from "being in the wild," but in the processes necessary to continue your existence while out there.

    To clarify, there is a good deal of research just emerging that links clinical depression (and also happiness) to the level at which you engage your own existence and subsistence. No matter who you are or how much stuff you own, the evidence indicates you will be happier if you spend at least a couple hours a day putting in the work required to sustain yourself *directly*. Our brains are wired to routinely grow, harvest, and cook food, raise shelter, build fires, clean our living areas, and help others around us do the same. Poor cultures which are forced to engage in all these activities daily bizarrely have among the lowest rates of depression in the world. It seems we may have engineered the disease by the spread of creature comforts and convenience. Even if you feel like the activities are a waste of time while you're doing them, you'll very likely go to bed a happier person, possibly without even realizing it.

    And interestingly, while backpacking, engaging in these kinds of activities is just about all we do outside of walking.
    Probably also a good argument for taking the time & weight to cook something beyond the boiled-meal-in-a-bag typical of backpackers. The extra effort you exert is not wasted, it is applied directly to your own psyche.

    You started to hint at this here:
    "I find joy in serving them – building them a fire to keep them warm, cooking a meal that teases their belly, or taking an interest in their conversation."

    I suppose a good counter-point is in the social component – it might not be enough to do these things alone.

    Courtenay Ennis
    BPL Member


    Locale: Southwestern BC

    Just read this post and loved it. Then realized it was written by a close friend.

    Mark Hurd
    BPL Member


    Locale: Willamette Valley

    As a family practice doc I deal with this issue on a daily basis. I personally find wilderness restoritive, but my patients in the county health clinic are unlikely to be able to enjoy this kind of diversion. I do not want to sound too clinical, but there is some science that is evolving around what makes us depressed and it includes a lack of serotonin in the brain. Cause and effect findings like this help take some of the mysticism and folklore out of the diagnosis. My patients often blame themselves or feel if they were only stronger or had more faith, etc. that they would "get over" their depression, but in "clinical depression" these are not useful concepts. I most often couch it in terms of a " chemical imbalance" in the brain. Modern medications that address the low serotonin and levels of other other brain hormones can be very effective.

    Other modalities including psychotherapy, exercise, meditation, counseling, wilderness, etc can also be helpful and may also increase serotonin, so please don't misconstrue that I am only advocating medication for this debilitating disease. But I would state that for the truly depressed that professional help and, yes, even medication needs to be considered.


    Tony Beasley
    BPL Member


    Locale: Pigeon House Mt from the Castle

    I would like to thank Cameron and Ryan for sharing their story’s about depression and I would like to share mine.

    I suffer from depression and have for many years, I control my depression by rigorous daily exercise and by going bushwalking.

    My thoughts are with Ryan and his friend David’s family, in recent years I have had two friends pass away from suicide, one was a very close friend and best man at my wedding, he suffered from Bipolar disorder, his decline was long and very traumatic for him and all of the people around him, I console myself by thinking that he is now at peace.

    My depression was first diagnosed after heavy bouts of drinking, at the time I had very serious suicidal thoughts, my wonderful GP of the time helped me through all of this.

    A few years ago my GP of 20 years and friend who helped me through my depression took his own life, as a GP he was too proud to admit he was suffering from depression, apparently depression is common amongst doctors.

    Shortly after my GP passed away I was diagnosed with advanced Prostate Cancer, two and a half years ago I underwent a Radical Prostatectomy, my new GP warned me that I was in for a tough time and would suffer from bouts of depression, this was true, during my recovery I had some hard fights with depression, fortunately I had a second to non support from friends, family and the specialist continence physio at the local government health system.

    The Radical Prostatectomy has left me a few problems that I will probably have for the rest of my life, I suffer from ED problems and I still have problems with my continence, at times I find these issues gets me down.

    Through out the last two and a half years one thing that has helped me get through my PC experience and depression is the thought that I have a wonderful family and friends and I can still run, I can still ride my bike and I can still bushwalk, and that there are many people out in this world that are much worse off than me.

    Lately I have found myself spending a lot of time offering support to some of my friends who are currently experiencing difficult times.

    While spending time in the wilderness is important for me, as Ryan has put forward wilderness on its own is not enough.


    Gerry Volpe


    Locale: Vermont

    While many experience its therapeutic powers, wilderness alone is definitely not enough if you are considering the treatment of someone suffering from a mood disorder or other mental health diagnosis. It is important to consider that all forms of "Adventure Therapy", including "Wilderness Therapy", incorporate far more than immersion in the natural environment. The integration of a wide variety of therapeutic approaches, theoretical frameworks, and best practices from psychology and related fields, as well as the involvement of mental health professionals is standard. Wilderness is a powerful therapeutic force but not the only element of effective treatment.

    peter vacco


    Locale: no. california

    " in my own experience, especially those times where I travel solo in wild places, I do not find a deep reprieve from depression. "

    heck, if you don't go solo to be darkly depressed, fear failure, think bad thoughts about "the end", be pissed off at the world and yourself for wasting your life … then .. what's the point ? why even go ?

    has anybody ever anywhere at any time, found a hard core solo'ist who was at his inner core.. happy ? with himself ?
    get real.
    polite, well mannered, caring, kind, honest, fun to drink with.. sure, all those things. not a problem. but "happy".
    no way.
    and it ain't going to happen.

    happy is a goal. so is perfection. many of us will reach neither.

    every time i go out of a spell, and come back, i am "more" ** of what i was before.
    now, overall, that's a good thing.
    but as far as cured, or "happy" .. nahh.

    ** – "worse", if you are my girlfriend.

    sorry about Ryan's friend.
    you can fight that stuff off for decades … but there comes a point where it's just more trouble than it's worth.

    Lawton G
    BPL Member


    Locale: Rocky Mountains


    Thanks for sharing this story and your thoughts.

    I know this wasn't an easy subject to talk about.


    John Nielsen
    BPL Member


    Locale: Matanuska Valley, Alaska

    I also thank you.

    There was a time when I expected the wilderness to provide some answers to my metaphysical and emotional questions and needs. Like many of you I spent lots of time in wilderness, but found when I depended on it for my answers, I came away empty. In the wilderness I wrestled as much with darkness as in other places. It did give me the time to analyze some of my issues, however.

    Later, I found relative peace with God, the cosmos, this world we live in, and my place in it. This happened primarily through other channels, but my experience in the wilderness was confirming. Now, I try not to depend on the wilderness for my therapy, but I find it amazingly therapeutic. Layers fall away, I'm back to basics, there really does seem to be something called beauty beyond my subjectivism, being part of wilderness suggests truth and a larger identity. This greatly impacts my psyche, but it is not foundational.

    I too, have worked with troubled youth and observed the response of these bound individuals as they experience wilderness. I am continually amazed what this experience does for many of them. It can shake paradigms. Still, I know of no one who was saved out of depression through their wilderness experience.

    Oliver Nissen
    BPL Member


    Locale: Yorkshire Dales

    Thank you Cameron, Ryan and all the commentators for sharing your experiences and thoughts on this difficult issue.

    I've had a lot to come to terms with this year and recently have had quite a bit of time to process it all, much of that on long hikes, solo and in groups. But on reflection, there's been no revelation, nor clarification.

    Perhaps I shouldn't expect that. My brain can't compute life and the world under any circumstances, rarefied or otherwise. Life's difficult questions remain as difficult as they've always been.

    But emotional healing is not necessarily resolved by conscious thought. I feel the dull ache of tired legs and mental exhaustion from yesterday's hike, but as my strength returns and coffee takes effect so my mind returns to my troubles. Perhaps it's time to distract myself again and look through the photos I've taken, recollecting my recent experiences. Afterall, isn't trekking is supposed to be mainly type II fun? Perhaps it's also type II therapy?


    Tranina Glover
    BPL Member


    I have gathered great tools for the release of depression through activity in my nearby desert. Alone or with friends the change of pace is so welcome. Yes, I do have to go back to my routine. For the most part I even change my routine by rotating certain items like for instance a rotating calendar, or changing a page in a illustrated book day to day. My husband teases me with my rotation routines, but I'm happy with this therapy so I'll just keep on keeping on. It's better than falling into depression.

    I also had a friend who killed himself. He was in a local hospital, was released, and went home instead of to the couple's house he was supposed to go to. He seemed so on top of life that friends were in shock when he left us.

    Yes, I am so sorry that your friend "David" took his life. And from other respondents who said when one person perishes we are all affected by that death. I am sure our responses have alleviated the pain of loss you and Cameron have witnessed.

    Again, thank you for sharing.

    Mark Primack
    BPL Member


    Locale: Cape Cod and Northern Newfoundland

    Thanks Ryan for sharing your insight and your very personal story. It takes more real courage to tell the truth than anything in this world, any adventure, any wilderness challenge. You are courageous.

    Glen Van Peski
    BPL Member


    Locale: San Diego

    Ryan –

    I'm sorry for the loss of your friend, and the impact on his family and friends. Having lived through, actually I guess living with would be more accurate, close family members dealing with clinical depression, I can relate. I know for me, the things that help are service to others, exercise and organization/control. The wilderness can certainly provide some of these, and fresh air and beautiful vistas to boot. But as you mention, the wilderness by itself is not enough, without the other ingredients.


    Michael Bachman


    Locale: Western Slope, Colorado

    “Education and knowledge by themselves do not bring inner peace to individuals, families or the society in which they live. But education combined with warmheartedness, a sense of concern for the well-being of others, has much more positive…results. If you have a great deal of knowledge, but you’re governed by negative emotions, then you tend to use your knowledge in negative ways. Therefore, while you are learning, don’t forget the importance of warmheartedness.”
    – Dalai Lama

    Peace be with all in this time of grief, introspection & transformation. I'd rather not talk about the darkness, which I know all too well.

    May our breath carry us to a place that doesn't judge but just observes. May the wind shriek infinite infinities of sorrow for all love deprived beings departing every second of every day. May the moon meet the eyes of every mortal while it rises & bows down to souls born & reborn in the milky way since time immemorial. May the Earth Mother cry a trillion billion tears for the love displaced in even just one divine spirit being in this harsh yet beautiful & mysterious world. May awareness and consciousness merge & evolve into a union of ever unfolding compassion bathing all in infinite vibrational harmony.

    intelligence of the heart

    May we rise above…with fierce grace.

    John Donewar
    BPL Member


    Locale: Southeastern Texas

    We all deal with adversity differently. This man's story brought me to tears.

    Love life!

    Party On,


    Jason Elsworth


    Locale: New Zealand

    I have really enjoyed reading this article and the subsequent comments and I applaud all those who have been so open and honest here. I don't want to say much more except that I could relate to many of the comments and it's nice not to feel alone.

    Thanks for the link Newton. It reminded me of this fantastic article.

    Kenneth C Herbst


    Locale: The Alamo City

    Thanks for your beautifully written article.

    The many points you make resonate with me profoundly as a life-long sufferer of clinical depression.

    Exercise helps. Meds help. Diet and sleep help.

    But being outside, feeling as one with the earth and the cosmos, definitely helps a great deal for me as well.

    Great comments from the readers, too.

    Good bunch of folks here.

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