British Columbia

Battling mental illness, B.C. mountain climber finds peace in the outdoors

For Brent Seal, being outside is an essential part of managing his schizophrenia and building a supportive community to overcome social isolation, but it's only one part of a comprehensive approach he took to manage his mental health.

'It’s real and it’s connection. I think we all need that for positive mental health'

Brent Seal works as a mental health trainer for youth and young adults. He takes youth into the outdoors, which he says improves their mental health. (James Frystak)

A diagnosis of schizophrenia at age 22 left Brent Seal in a debilitated state. He struggled, attempting suicide, experiencing delusions, hallucinations and symptoms of psychosis until he found relief through hiking with his parents.

"I couldn't go to school, I couldn't drive a car, I couldn't live on my own," said Seal, now 34.

He believes the experiences he had in nature saved his life.

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, one million British Columbians will encounter mental health struggles this year, and a growing body of research shows that heading to the outdoors could be one approach to managing mental illness.

"I think the studies that have shown benefits have shown some really impressive benefits," said Emily Rugel, a PhD candidate and scholar at the School of Population and Public Health at the University of British Columbia.

Rugel studies the positive effect exposure to nature has on our brains.

Brent Seal (left) said his struggles with schizophrenia were helped, in part, by his love of the outdoors and the community he found there. (James Frystak)

She said she hopes her work mapping urban green spaces and the relative quality of those spaces will help policy makers better understand what it is about nature that helps people connect to each other in a more meaningful way than in busy urban environments.

"Social isolation is really a big problem that we face,' Rugel said.

"I think that nature has great potential to help us strengthen our bonds with other people and improve our mental health by doing so."

 2017 study from UBC showed exposure to nature among study participants increased their happiness and connectedness to other people.

Outdoor therapy can help provide connection and social supports for people, but it's not a sweeping solution to severe mental illness, according to Liz Robbins, executive director of the Crisis Lines Association of BC.

"That sense of connectedness is hugely important for suicide prevention," she said, adding, "If someone is in a suicidal crisis, they may still feel very alone."

'It's real and it's connection'

For Seal, climbing mountains helped him build a community of support that he could turn to when his symptoms of schizophrenia returned five years ago.

"When I struggle the most, I isolate the most and the outdoors is a platform to connect with people," he said.

"The fun, the laughter, the support, the conversations that come up during the hike; it's real and it's connection.

"I think we all need that for positive mental health."

Seal is now a motivational speaker and the founder of Mavrixx Academy, an organization that raises awareness of mental health through mountain-climbing expeditions.

It also provides mental health programming for youth and young adults, much of it based in the outdoors.

He teaches that a holistic approach is needed to succeed in recovery and says psychiatrists, social workers, medication, nutrition and rest were all essential in his own recovery.

"All the things that affect our mental health and wellness are the things I tapped into to get back on my feet," he explained.

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or depression, you can find 24-hour help at 310-6789 and 1-800-SUICIDE.

The Great Wide Open is an outdoor column that airs on CBC's The Early Edition. Listen to it here:​