While outdoor rock climbing participation in general has increased in the U.S., so has the number of women interested in the sport. Women participants and guides have described feelings of empowerment as central to their experience in outdoor or adventure therapy, along with an increase in self-efficacy, resiliency, and confidence (Karoff et al., 2019). Linking the well-researched benefits of exercise and the natural environment as they may apply to those experiencing mental illness seems only natural. Moreover, it can be argued that utilizing exercise in the outdoor setting as a form of therapy would be likely to elicit positive effects on those who experience mental illness and increase general well-being (Fruhauf et al., 2016). Purpose: This study therefore sought to explore new insight on how rock climbing may influence women with mental illness.
METHODS: For the purpose of this qualitative phenomenological study, a diverse (e.g. age, ethnicity and years of rock climbing) group of nine female rock climbers who self-identified as currently experiencing or with a history of mental illness in the past were recruited using both convenience and snowball sampling methods. The interviews were audiotaped and later transcribed. Analysis: Data were analyzed and assigned codes using a text-based manual approach (Saldaña, 2013). Further, driven by data, themes or patterns were identified in an inductive manner or a ‘bottom up’ way (Braun & Clarke, 2006).
RESULTS: Of the 9 participants interviewed: 7 experienced sexual-assault in their lifetime; 5 described symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder; 9 stated to have experienced depression; and 9 self-labeled having a history of anxiety. Four rich themes, each with distinct categories emerged further expounding on the respective topic: (a) Background factors (family, gender, and trauma); (b) mental health (mental illness & treatment); (c) well-being (climbing community, emotional qualities of rock climbing, physical qualities of rock climbing, & outdoors), and; (d) strength-based (self-determination, self-efficacy, resiliency, & locus of control). Participant responses shed light on the ways in which the sport and community of rock climbing provides them with structure and support that enhances their well-being, and the power of control experienced in the sport.
IMPLICATIONS: The findings highlight the ways that rock climbing as a sport, community, and outdoor experience positively affects (e.g. well-being and inner strength) women currently experiencing or with a history of mental illness (specifically anxiety & depression).