Climbing and Mental Health


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Climbing Therapy – Research Opportunity

Calling all undergraduates and postgraduates looking for a research project!

The Adelaide Foundation has awarded a grant to the Irish Mountaineering Club to pilot a Climbing Therapy programme for people with mental health difficulties from 2021-2022.  Climbing Therapy is an emerging intervention which combines psychoeducation with climbing, in order to support people with anxiety, depression and psychosis.  Stephanie O’Connor and Áine O’Reilly, who work in Tallaght Mental Health Services, travelled to Austria in 2019 to train in Climbing Therapy.  Along with Philip Duke in Dublin Climbing Centre, we have devised a Climbing Therapy programme for use here in Ireland.  We would like to hear from any interested students who would like to work with us to evaluate the effectiveness of this programme.  For more information please contact Stephanie 086 779 2022 or Áine 087 947 3251.

The story so far

A few years ago Stephanie, a speech and language therapist, and a climber joined our staff in the West Dublin Community Mental Health Services. Chatting about climbing at work, lead to chatting how it was useful for personal mental health, lead to exchange of research papers on mental health and climbing. 

There were quite a few articles on the general mental health benefits of climbing, but what really caught our eye was a series of papers from Germany and Austria outlining work that had been done with people who experience depression and anxiety. In addition there was a paper from the States using climbing to help encourage ‘post traumatic growth’. Both of us are interested in our work and love climbing, so finding a way of combining the two really caught our imaginations and fired our enthusiasm. We found ourselves thinking about people on our caseload and wondering if climbing would be helpful for him or her.

As it happens, Tallaght Community Mental Health Team HQ is almost directly across the road from Dublin Climbing Centre. Phil Duke, who works there, was doing a degree in sports science and had an interest in the mental health benefits of climbing and was interested in getting involved. DCC had already done ‘Climbing for All’ training to make sure they accommodated people with disabilities were also interested in the project.

In order to put the idea out there we presented it to the IMC committee. With lots of help from IMC members we organised an event for world mental health day in October 2019. We presented the research and looked at why climbing might be helpful for people’s mental health and also did some climbing. It was great night, better attended and more positive than we’d expected.

In order to be in a position to use climbing within the mental health services we needed training. In November 2019 Stephanie and I did a training course in climbing therapy the beautiful town of Bad Ischl in Austria. It was a week long and was run by Alexis Jajetz , a psychotherapist who is also a climber. It was an experiential course. We were encouraged to identify and discuss experiential qualities of climbing e.g. trusting other people, self-efficacy, risk, personal boundaries etc. The course also had practical elements such as how to design a therapy programme, the level of verbal feedback and specific exercises that can be used. On both a personal and professional level it was a very interesting course to participate in.

Then we did some work with Tallaght Community Mental Health Team, we presented the idea at their Team Management Meeting and we also did a ‘team building’ morning with some members of the team in the Dublin Climbing Centre. It gave us a chance to try out some of the techniques we learned on our course and gave the team an experience of what climbing was like. It was also great fun. Tallaght team liked the idea. Climbing might appeal to some people who need some help but aren’t keen on conventional mental health service offerings such as medication or talking therapies.

Then COVID struck. At this point the main task for us was to get funding. We need to fund the people who use the service to access the climbing gym, the equipment etc.  but many of the grant providers were funding Covid Specific projects, or had postponed funding for the year or we just didn’t fit the criteria. It was quite a difficult task to find a funder. On attempt four we were finally successful, the Adelaide Foundation awarded funding of €3000 to Irish Mountaineering Club to run the project. 

With this money we plan to trial three courses

1. For people who experience depression

2. For people who experience anxiety

3. For people who have experienced a first episode of psychosis.

We plan to start in September.