Finding therapy through nature

Mental health advocate Shawn Maile (second from left) – pictured with hiking friends - is a firm believer in how the great outdoors can boost emotional wellbeing. He spoke with Observer to mark World Mental Health Day. (Photos by Shahein Fitzpatrick)
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Story and photos by Shahein Fitzpatrick

With a passion for the outdoors and a degree in psychology, a mental health advocate is encouraging others to use nature’s power as a form of remedy for the mind and body.

Saturday was World Mental Health Day, and on Sunday Shawn Maile, who owns his own adventure company, found himself hiking through the hills of Antigua – from Fig Tree Drive in John Hughes to Boggy Peak in Old Road – with close friends to enjoy the benefits of being active.

Maile told Observer that, as a boy growing up in the countryside of Falmouth, even though there was a TV and video games inside, everyone wanted to be outside playing marbles, football, cricket and hand tennis with their friends.

He described Falmouth as a village full of beautiful trees, fresh air and forestry, with the ocean always in one’s view and hiking trails to explore. This caused him to develop a deep passion for adventure.

“In terms of my passion for the outdoors, that’s something that has been a part of me for a very long time. Growing up on an island and coming from the countryside, nobody had to tell you to go outside, you always wanted to be outside,” Maile enthused.

“From a young age coming up, that element of play in the outdoors was always present, it was always there, and in terms of enjoying it, what’s there not to enjoy?”

Maile said he was just nine years old when he first conquered the tough trail to Monks Hill.

“This was during summer vacation; there was nothing else to do, so my friends and I decided to not call it hiking, we just said we are going exploring. We lived at the base of the hill; we didn’t know what was up there, so we made our own paths and discovered some other old tracks as we explored to see what’s there,” he explained.

Exploration as a child made Maile’s young mind even more thirsty for knowledge, which motivated him to pursue studies in psychology in the early 2000s.

Maile said, “Nothing else really excited me as much as the unknown, as to what is psychology, how to understand human beings and how to uncover more about myself. Psychology seemed more in tune to who I was as a person and what I wanted to do.”

Maile said a person can be physically unwell but easily recover from some complaints.

“On a mental spectrum now, if you’re mentally unwell it takes a longer time for you to bounce back from whatever it is that is keeping you constrained so to speak.

“Mentally if you are unwell and you don’t seek help, you are only going to be either stuck or go deeper into the pit that is keeping you constrained. The same way people go to a gym and sign up for a coach, is the same way people should go and talk to a therapist, if it is something that they think they can’t overcome mentally on their own.”

Maile told Observer that therapy can also come from having a good friend and talking through what you are facing.

“If you’re sitting down at home every day thinking about your problems, that’s the only thing you are focused on. You’re only going to ruminate on that one thought and it can bring you deeper down into a state of anxiety, depression and overall mental un-wellness,” he said.

Maile said being outdoors forces one to be in the moment – and takes one’s mind off their worries.

Maile suggested, “Once you have legs and you can walk, you should. The fact that we live on an island and it’s so green, that in itself is medication. Just simply being outside in nature is medication and why wouldn’t you take it?

“It’s free, it’s there, you don’t have to pay for it. When you get to the stage where a doctor is prescribing things to you, you have gone too far. It’s easy to become unwell but it is always harder to recover.”

Maile said movement helps with blood pressure, anxiety, insomnia, indigestion and diabetes.

“I am not saying that walking and hiking are cures, but it definitely helps one to cope with these lifestyle diseases. Something as simple as gardening, just the activity of putting something in the soil and watching it grow can be a form of therapy as well.”

He added, “For someone reading this, what I hope to accomplish is to inspire someone to move, to build more movement into their daily routine. It might be something as simple as going outside and doing weeding. Simple activities that require movement will only add to your life.”

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