Mental Health Awareness Week rolls around every year in October, and every year there is a different theme. This year’s theme, ‘let nature in, strengthen your well-being, really resonated with us – so too with Macpac Ambassador, Dulkara Martig. And while MHAW has come and gone this year, we think that it’s vital that we all keep the conversation going year round. In part 1 of this 2 part series, Dulkara shares her experience with depression, and the positive impact that nature can have on a person’s outlook.
It was recently mental health awareness week in New Zealand and it’s bucketing down with rain in Nelson today. I bailed on a slippery, rooty mountain bike ride and was inspired to write a few words about mental well-being and the outdoors instead. One of my key personal values in life is authenticity. Part of that for me involves showing that it’s okay to be vulnerable.
Most people who know me see me as someone who is indestructible, someone who squeezes more adventures into life than they can fathom. I’m strong, capable and fiercely independent. Most of the time I have very high confidence and a strong belief that I can accomplish anything. I’ve navigated large swathes of wilderness with different disciplines all over the world, traversed the Southern Alps, and walked most of New Zealand’s Great Walks, each in a day. But beneath the surface, I’ve definitely had some dark times, particularly as a teenager. I remember one moment distinctly.
I lay down under a star-spangled sky, wrapped up tight in my sleeping bag. I was in the sail boom cover on a catamaran in the Abel Tasman National Park, looking up at the moonlit darkness. This was one of my favourite places in the world – by the ocean, feeling the salty sea breeze. Everything was perfect, but tears streamed down my face. I was lonely, felt useless, insecure, incomplete. I kept a diary as a teenager, writing in it whenever I was inspired to. There was a patch around this time filled with dark thoughts. I was around 14 years old. Looking back I was depressed, on and off, for around three years.
Nobody around me would have known apart from my mum. I looked happy and healthy on the outside and was a high-achieving young woman in all aspects of my life. I had had my first kiss, my first boyfriend, ran my first half marathon, got good grades at school. My depression was heavily linked to body image, something that’s rife among teenagers. For me physical exercise and time in nature was the most beneficial strategy to work through this period. I went trail running in the hills behind Nelson with my Mum for one hour most mornings before school. I went to the gym and went lane swimming. I swam at the beach a lot; one winter I even made the goal to swim every single week in the ocean. Nature was a place where I found balance, fresh perspectives and joy in simply moving my body. Alongside time outside I also found peace in creative activities like photography, mosaicing, flax weaving and writing.
I was part of the school rowing team, with peak training reaching over 30 hours a week. I remember thinking that rowing was one of the best things in my life and also one of the worst. I experienced an amazing sense of belonging and loved spending most school mornings rowing on the ocean as the sun came up. I had, however, started to develop an unhealthy obsession with exercise. On top of rowing training I would often do extra mountain bike rides and long trail runs. I completely burnt out and got glandular fever two weeks before my final Maadi Cup (national rowing regatta). I sat on the sidelines and watched on as my team of eight got silver. Through my experiences I learnt that obsessive, manic exercise created its own problems and that striking a balance was crucial.
At around 18 years old my darker times dissipated. My hormones balanced out somewhat. I haven’t experienced any significant patches of depression since then, however I suspect mild depression has been an ongoing theme in my adult life. Nearly everyone who knows me wouldn’t be able to pick it. But there are a few very subtle signs: such as pulling away from social interactions, feeling more stressed and an irrational feeling of uselessness that nobody else would notice. It’s usually triggered by being in an environment where I feel stifled or I don’t connect with the people around me. My confidence around body image still ebbs and flows but each year I’ve become more comfortable in my own skin. Mild depression can be hard to diagnose and tricky to talk about because it seems insignificant in comparison to more moderate-severe depression. Fortunately, it is the easiest to treat. Many lifestyle habits go a long way in boosting serotonin levels in the brain, which can help fight depressive symptoms. For me, an active and outdoors lifestyle has been the way I’ve managed a propensity for mild depression. It keeps me balanced. There is so much research around the benefits of being connected to nature. I highly recommend this National Geographic Article ‘This is your brain on nature’ if you’re interested in reading more.
I’ve found joy in being outside for as long as I can remember. My childhood was full of outside baths under the stars, running around naked in Mount Cook Village chasing paradise ducks, playing in the surf near Punakaiki, climbing trees and catching tadpoles. In this crazy, fast-paced world, nature is what keeps me grounded. As I’ve got older I’ve become more conscious about the positive impact adventures have on my mental well-being.
Getting more into the outdoors was the healthiest thing I ever did. It also helped me to reframe the way I saw my body as a young woman. Instead of thinking about what it looked like, I valued where it took me. Since then I’ve had a really healthy relationship with exercise. I still love moving my body, I spend nearly all of my free time engaged in outdoor pursuits. But it doesn’t consume me the way it did as a teenager. I do it because it’s fun, it’s social and I love feeling connected to the earth.
Different styles of adventure influence my mental well-being in different ways. I can put the outdoor sports I participate in into two categories, and often a trip has elements of both. There are the activities that are all-consuming, where it’s easy to be totally present in the moment and a momentary lapse in concentration could cause an accident. These include whitewater sports, more technical mountain biking and mountaineering. I love these activities for the total escape, for the flow, the buzz of adrenaline. I regularly get off a river and think ‘wow, I haven’t thought about anything for four hours apart from the present moment’. In a busy life full of things tugging at us from all directions, that’s gold.
But I also really appreciate more mellow outdoor activities. Tramping immediately springs to mind. You don’t experience the same peak high as in the other adrenaline sports. But it has a depth to it that I find difficult to describe. To me there’s also a really spiritual element to long journeys on foot. I experience a deeper connection to the land and my mind can wander in a really meditative way because the activity isn’t all-consuming. There’s a concept in Maori culture that I love: Tūrangawaewae. It’s often translated as a ‘place to stand’. Tūrangawaewae are places where we feel especially empowered and connected. They are our foundation, our place in the world, our home. Another Maori concept I love is ‘Whenua’ which means both the placenta that connects a baby to the mother’s womb and the land. It recognises the importance of a human’s connection to the natural world.
The outdoors strengthens all aspects of my Hauora. For my international friends, Hauora is a Maori philosophy of health and well-being unique to New Zealand. There are four dimensions of Hauora; Taha Tinana (Physical Well-being – health), Taha Hinengaro (Mental & Emotional Well-being – self-confidence), Taha Whanau (Social Wellbeing – self-esteem) and Taha Wairua (Spiritual Well-being – personal beliefs).
As I’ve grown older I’ve come to be more thankful for my down times and have learnt to celebrate all of the positive things they have brought to my life. I have more empathy and understanding for others in a similar situation and a deep drive to work on projects that strengthen the mental well-being of young New Zealanders. One of my main motivations to work with people in the outdoors is because I believe time in nature is so beneficial for all aspects of our well-being. I would go as far as saying that getting people to spend more time in the outdoors is my biggest goal in life.
I’ve been teaching Outdoor Education in a high school this year. I cried for the first time at work last month. I found myself walking to my classroom, wiping the tears off my face and getting ready to put my ‘game face’ on. Then I thought ‘this is ridiculous, these teenagers need to see that it’s okay to express emotional vulnerabilities. It’s not a weakness – it’s part of being human. Instead of pushing my feelings under the carpet, I said “I’ve had a pretty stressful day, I actually cried for the first time at work this morning.” A small sea of teenage boys looked up at me with genuine sympathy.
A few weeks later a challenging situation arose. One of my students had a very unlucky mountain biking accident, resulting in a T5 spinal cord injury. He is currently being treated as a paraplegic. This news hit me and some of my students harder than I’d expected, particularly in the first week following the crash. So I sat down and opened the discussion to see if they wanted to talk more about it. I shared that I’d been finding it really hard myself and that if anyone wanted to chat, the door was open. A few days later I found myself sitting at a table talking with two teenage boys, with tears rolling down their cheeks. As soon as I saw tears start to well up in their eyes, I started to cry too. Partly out of empathy, partly because it was a challenging situation for me too. I also felt happiness that they felt comfortable enough to show their vulnerabilities in my presence.
In being authentic and opening up about our own vulnerabilities, we create a space where others feel comfortable to do it too. It’s something I’m particularly passionate about as a New Zealander, as we have the highest youth suicide rates in the developing world and increasing levels of anxiety and depression.
If there’s one main thing I’ve learned through my own experiences it’s that you should never make assumptions about what someone else is feeling. It’s common for the people you’d least expect to also face challenges with mental health at different times. We all have unique dispositions, personality traits and environmental factors that influence us and make us more or less susceptible to different mental wellbeing challenges. I personally believe that spending time in the outdoors (and away from screens) has never been more important than now. Kia Kaha and get outside!