Movement & Mental Health Ph.D. Research
Hi Charlotte, can you tell me more about the PhD you have been accepted on? What will you be doing? What do you hope to learn?
The PhD will be looking at the use of parkour as a treatment intervention for mental health. Physical activity is now widely recognised as an effective management tool for many symptoms of mental illness, as is adventure or wilderness therapy, which encourages the individual to interact with nature to help manage mental health.
I believe that parkour brings together the benefits of adventure therapy, enabling the practitioner to interact with their environment and redefine their relationship with the world around them, with the benefits of physical activity. Over the course of the PhD I will be talking to those who already do parkour and report using it as a tool for their mental health and welbeing, as well as looking at the psychological and physiological changes in those living with mental illness as they undergo structured parkour training.
What’s your story? What lead you down the road to look at Parkour/ Extreme sports and mental health?
I have always been drawn to adventure sports; scuba diving, climbing, surfing, snowboarding, sky diving, to name but a few. I started parkour when I was going through a “yes” phase. Living in London at the time, I picked up the free friday magazine “Sport” one morning. This issue had an article about parkour and finished with details of a class on friday evenings….did I want to go?… “Yes”. So I walked home in my lunch break, picked up my gym gear and went. While I don’t practice as frequently as I used to, it is still an element of any training programme for me.
Having grown up around mental illness; members of my family suffer from depression and have recovered from eating disorder, self harm being very prevalent while I was at school, and having to take a friend to hospital after overdosing at university. Mental health was something I have always had an interest in, and wanted to learn to understand.
I have been fortunate to work in various fitness roles during my career, either directly with or supporting the NHS. The opportunity then came up to work for a local NHS mental health authority which I grabbed with both hands, and was thrown straight in at the deep end working in both the forensic and acute wards.
As a personal trainer I always draw from various skills in sessions, strength training, running, yoga, parkour, etc. While working on the acute ward it was encouraging to see the difference in those I worked with using more natural movement rather than the standard “gym” training. And it was through this experience that I began to look to parkour as a method of managing mental health.
Depending on your world view, some may see this as a natural pairing. Others may not. What do you think?
When the press release was launched on Bristol Post online, one of the comments was something along the lines of “Getting mentally unwell people to go to high places and jump, have they actually thought this through?”. So I do understand that not everyone will want to associate parkour and mental health
I think there is a lot of misconception about what parkour is, and what progress means. In the same way you wouldn’t expect someone who has never held a paint brush before to produce a masterpiece painting; irrespective of mental health, someone who has never done parkour isn’t going to start at the same place as a professional parkour performer who may have taken years to master their practice.
In terms of mental health we focus on using parkour to develop mental and physical resilience, overcoming both physical and mental obstacles, learning to work with the body and world you inhabit, rather than against it.
Many writers have spoken about the use of “flow” in parkour, where the mind is so focussed that all other mental noise goes quiet and there is no distinction between mind and body at that moment. Some refer to it as meditation in motion. While meditation has been shown beneficial for those with depression or anxiety, it is less successful for those with schizophrenia, due to distraction from the audio hallucinations. Studies have shown that meditation benefits can be achieved through task focused meditation. I believe this is true of the flow achieved in Parkour.
Something I also believe would be interesting to research at a later date would be the use of parkour to manage self harm. Of those who self harm, many report that they do purely to feel something. They are so numbed by the depression that they just want to be able to feel something, anything to prove that they are still part of the world around them. For others it is a control thing, if they have to feel pain any way,this is the pain they are choosing, and brings the control back to them. With Parkour you interact directly with your environment, the more you practise somewhere, the more that place becomes part of your being. You push your body to its absolute limits and then see if you can go just that little bit further, your hands ache, your body aches. You may fall. You will get back up. You are in control.
Why do you think there is so little emphasis on this aspect of lifestyle sport?Understanding the history of mental health services emphasises how little is really known about what people are and are not able to do while mentally unwell. Remember it was only around 30 years ago that the last mental asylums closed. Most of those who were nurses then, are now senior management. While I know some who have learned from these experiences and pushed the mental health services in a very good direction towards progress and recovery, there seems to me to still be a “revolving door” culture to mental health treatment.
As a service provider, those who are working with people with mental illness have a duty of care to make sure they are as safe as possible. When working with someone living with mental illness, this person is in a vulnerable position. When you see them, they may or may not be having a good day. Certain medications can affect heart rate, neurotransmitter acetylcholine which will effect movement ability, lethargy, coordination. Politically, “safer” sports are easier for the hospitals/ sports centres/ health services to manage and risk assess.
I have been asked not to work with someone before as they were having a bad day, in terms of symptoms. I know why the nurses say this, risk could have been high of them harming either themselves or me. On some occasions this is understandable, risks are very real; at one point I was the only female working with an individual because, while relapsing, he had been violent towards the other women working with him. Many managers would have instantly taken me out of the gym sessions with this person, exacerbating his negative relationship with women. I asked to continue my work with this person, taking the time to understand the triggers. He regularly reported to his care coordinator that he looked forward to his gym sessions because of everything he was achieving. Sometimes enabling people to manage their symptoms is better than leaving them sitting in their ward room. The next stage is having the confidence in your own ability to be able to offer this, which is a matter of education, experience and understanding, then applying all of these.
What can other movement cultures learn from this?
1 in 4 people will suffer mental illness in any year. That doesn’t mean the same people year after year. Assuming you have 100 people in your community, then say 25 are likely to be suffering from mental illness in your first year. That could potentially reach 50 by the second year. By your fourth year, potentially the whole community may have experienced mental illness. Do you know how their medication will affect them? Do you know how your practice will affect them? Movement affects the spine. The spine protects the central nervous system. The central nervous system directly affects the way we respond to things. By getting people moving you are tapping straight into this. This may make them angry. It may make them sad. It may make them liberated. It may make them happy. The mind and body are not distinct. Start to discuss your mental health as openly as you would your physical health
What common misconceptions need to be addressed around this topic?
The first one and obvious one is the stigma of mental health, although there are loads of charities and individuals doing amazing work in this field already. I attended a Time To Talk event for mental health a few months back as a representative of Free Your Instinct. It was great to see so many people finally open up about something they felt they had to keep secret. What I noticed though is that many people talking to me started off confidently, then they would slowly get quieter and start to whisper as they continued their story in more detail. While people were ok talking about “depression”, or “anxiety”, or “eating disorder”, they would look round before whispering “schizophrenia” or “psychosis” or “hospital”. I doubt very much that anyone would whisper about needing to go to hospital because they had broken their leg, and I look forward to the day that this is the same for mental illness.
The other misconception, as described above, that performance parkour is the only aspect of parkour. In addition to the outdoor gymnastics you see on TV, Parkour is a philosophy movement that can be applicable to children, adults and even older adults, as demonstrated in the “Forever Young” concept in London.
Additionally, understanding what those living with mental illness are and are not capable of. In a world where it is risk assessed that Mental health hospital gyms cant have dummbells over 10kg for safety reasons we have a long journey to go before things like parkour, aerial and surfing are understood by public health services. Fortunately there are already independent charities leading the way in this area.
Tell me about your charity.
Free Your Instinct is the first registered charity (as far as I’m aware) to offer parkour coaching for people living with mental health difficulties.
As I said, I started thinking about the idea of Parkour and mental health while working as a fitness instructor for the local mental health authority. I then had the opportunity to meet with the director of their Bristol services. An incredibly inspiring man who I dont think he would mind me name checking, Malcolm Sinclair started working in mental health as a nurse and worked his way up. He has pushed the services in many amazing directions, helping to launch boxing for mental health, and an urban art project for mental health.
In the discussion with him I was inspired to take this project further. I had a few conversations with people within the parkour community to see what was already out there, and then there really was no turning back!
I wanted to base it in Bristol initially as that was where the mental health service I worked with was based. I then needed a coach so I researched qualified coaches in the area, found Jacob, and we began planning from there. We launched the pilot in September last year where we worked with a number of people with different experiences of mental health.
In the first few weeks of the courses we work within a purpose built parkour park in Bristol which allows the participants to learn technique and start playing with concepts such as overcoming fear, team working and overcoming obstacles, in a semi controlled area. We then move into more public areas, which offers an additional level of challenge for those living with social anxiety. We always work with the individual to overcome these challenges. Seeing the change in the people that attended the pilot was so inspiring!
Outside of the classes, offering parkour for mental health invites people to ask questions. As you rightly pointed out above, the idea of parkour and mental health doesn’t sit well together in many peoples minds, so they feel compelled to ask questions and to give us their opinion. I hope that through our presence as a charity we start to challenge peoples beliefs and overcome the stigma of mental health.
If you are concerned about your mental health, always contact your GP or a mental health professional. Talk to someone. If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts the Samaritans are an independent organisation run by trained volunteers who can talk to you about how you are feeling, openly, honestly and non judgementally.
Start to become aware of your thoughts and any other symptoms you are experiencing. Have a look at what is happening in your life. Mental illness can have many causes, it can be caused by a traumatic experience, or sudden change, your environment, etc. You may find there are things in your life that you are holding onto that you need to let go of, work pressures, relationships, etc. stress isnt always about the size of the issue. If we hold up a heavy weight, our arms will ache and become tired. If we hold a feather, our arms will still ache and become tired, it will just take longer and be harder to know when to put it down. Have a think about any feathers you need to put down.
Get moving. Exercise and movement are great for mental well-being. When we experience stress our bodies still go through the hormonal changes of fight or flight, even if we don’t. So getting the body moving allows it to process these hormones and reduce stress and anxiety responses. You may find that you dont have the motivation to plan an activity session yourself, which is where classes come in great as you can be lead by the instructor.
If you are concerned about a friend. Message them, take them for a coffee, take them swimming, take them to a yoga class, a parkour class. Reach out and ask them, are you ok? If you have noticed any unusual behaviours, let them know you have noticed, even if its just a text: “i noticed you <whatever unusual behaviour> is everything ok? Fancy going for a coffee/ walk/ class”
Their illness may push you away. Don’t take this personally, just make sure they know you are there.
Again if you are concerned about suicidal thoughts in your friend, do not take this responsibility on yourself, your mental health is just as important as theirs. Contact the Samaritans who can advise you on the situation.
Thanks Charlotte, great to hear your insights and perspective on it. Best wishes for the project and research.