NHS therapists harness mental health benefits of climbing

People receiving care for their mental health have taken to local climbing walls as an activity to help them in their recovery.

Service users at Sheffield Health and Social Care NHS Foundation Trust (SHSC) were offered the opportunity to join a group, based at The Climbing Hangar in Burngreave, to use climbing to support their mental health.

Indoor climbing and bouldering (a form of climbing that does not use ropes or harnesses) are widely recognised to have a positive impact on mental health. They boost confidence and self-esteem when you have success, promotes communication, problem-solving and overcoming challenges, and helps people to learn about setting personal goals.

Max Ward, consultant clinical psychologist at SHSC, said: “Climbing also hurts. Your feet and hands will be sore, and a lot of the time you will fail at what you try to achieve at first. When you climb, you’re learning that that is okay and how to deal with it when you face with these circumstances.

“It mirrors life. The group is aimed to teach our service users all these skills which they can then take and apply to life in general.”

Max Ward on the climbing wall
Max Ward on the climbing wall

One of the positive aspects of climbing is that it is an individual sport, where participants can focus on themselves, but that takes place in a group setting.

Jack Samways, occupational therapist at SHSC, said: “As a group and social activity, climbing offers a complete alternative to more competitive sports, so team sports where people are having to be good enough to do something. Climbing is very much a role-based sport where you’re working on your personal progression. Each of the different routes is called a problem, so when you first come in you get to work through your own personal problems but in a contained way.

“We’re also engendering the idea of belonging to the community. A lot of our mental health community groups are a little bit separate from mainstream environments, but here you’re integrating straight into a community where people might not normally feel comfortable to go into.”

Interest in the group surpassed organisers’ expectations, who say this reflects the growing need for alternative mainstream activities which will engage younger service users.

The idea for the group came off the back of Jack’s personal experience of taking up the sport, but it took a whole host of teams to get it off the ground.

The organisers were in touch with several climbing centres trying to find a suitable venue and the planning involved input from SHSC’s services at Forest Close, the Community Enhancing Recovery Team, Forensic Therapy and Quality Improvement – as well as Sports for Confidence which is led by occupational therapists like Jack.

“The first time I climbed I felt very anxious and struggled to continue. In the end I walked out the building,” he said. “That was about a year ago and it took a lot of determination to come back to it. That’s a really positive thing about it – that idea where the only failure is the fear of failure and then not acting.

“I’m not a very sporty person, I’m not massively into fitness, but it’s a sport that really benefits mind and body.”

The group is supported by The Climbing Hangar, which gave coaching time and its facilities to the staff and service users from SHSC.

Sam Brown, head coach at The Climbing Hangar, said: “It’s been so good for The Climbing Hangar and such a pleasure for us to facilitate this. The Climbing Hangar was all set up around making people feel great and better, that’s one of the Hangar values. So to actually be part of something that so visibly has such a high impact, that is absolutely great.

“Watching people on their first session here, coming through the doors being quite nervous in a new environment where we look to push boundaries and limits – to then seeing them in the second session asking me how to do things and today just watching them walk off to choose problems, identify things that they’d like to do and then ask about future coaching and what do we do now, it’s fantastic.

“As a Climbing Hangar we are so excited to look at the future of this.”

Sam Brown and Jack Samways
Sam Brown and Jack Samways

Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. One participant said: “Going to the climbing group motivates me to engage in more sports throughout the rest of the week,” while another said “I like it, you come across problems, and you’ve got to put effort into them to work them out.”

The initial run of sessions has come to an end, but organisers hope to take it further and create a weekly group which can be open to more people who could harness the benefits of climbing to their mental health.

Jack, Max and their colleagues are also looking at how to develop the group’s structure, potentially creating a new way of thinking about how to offer therapy through physical activity to service users.

For all involved, they’re looking forward to getting chalk on their hands and back to the rock face as soon as they can.

Sam Brown and Jack Samways