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Climbing for Mental Health

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Luke Kretschmar climbs at Lover’s Leap, where Lowry guides clients on moderate routes. Photo: Andrew Burr

We often talk about the mental side of climbing, like how to overcome fear, visualize success, and be a better overall climber. But there’s another cognitive aspect of climbing that’s grown in recent years: Psychologists are using climbing as treatment for mental health disorders. Younghee Lowry, a crisis worker in Tahoe, California, uses climbing as a type of “mindfulness therapy,” a treatment described by the American Psychological Association (APA) as “paying attention to one’s experience in the present moment, observing thoughts and emotions from moment to moment without judging.” We spoke with Lowry about her experiences with patients learning to climb and how it plays into their mental health treatment plan. 

What does your full-time job look like as a clinician?

I work for El Dorado County with a team of people that go out into the community to do outreach. We also have transitional houses inhabited by people who have just left behavioral court. [In court] they’re given a choice: Go to jail or go to these transitional houses. Oftentimes the diagnoses are co-occurring, meaning they have some kind of addiction issue along with a mental health issue, like being bipolar. Some of my clients have seen the most improvement from climbing are acutely schizophrenic; many have heard voices and been hospitalized multiple times.

How many clients have you taken climbing, and how many have benefitted?

The crux of getting the dozens of clients out is just getting them out—finding the motivation for them to get out of the house and exercise. I would say it was a very successful experience for every single client—once I managed to get them out. Schizophrenic patients have reported to me that they’ve been absent of their symptoms during climbing. That’s basically a mindfulness exercise where they are so engaged in the moment that it does seem to decrease their symptoms.

Studies have already shown that exercise, sunshine, and all that is helpful for those with mood disorders, but I do think there’s a lot of research yet to be done in working with people who have a diagnosis on the psychotic spectrum. [When we’re climbing] there’s the mindfulness aspect, but they don’t really have a choice because I’m doing mostly multi-pitch routes. Basically, they’re on the end of a rope. It’s not like a boulder problem where they can give up. I make that very clear before we go. I’ll say, “I’m going to be up here and you’re going to be down there so there’s only one place to go. I can’t come back down to get you.” There’s a high level of commitment, and we talk a lot about that.

When you’re taking patients out, are you working primarily one-on-one?

Yes, that is what I prefer. I have taken groups out, once with some boys from a group home, but that was more for behavior modification and teamwork, kind of like the Outward Bound model. What I think is exciting, though, is to take one client out, spend the day with him or her, and really see that person in the environment and the connection we share. They’re my climbing partner, so there’s a lot of trust both ways. [ED. Lowry says she only climbs terrain she’s completely comfortable soloing so she doesn’t have to worry about her beginner belayers.]

Are there any specific cases of a client’s transformation that stand out before and after climbing?”

The case that stands out to me is a 17-year-old man who has been hospitalized most of his life; he’s very ill, very delusional. He had been diagnosed with depression and conduct disorder. We did East Face (5.7), a three-pitch climb at Lover’s Leap, and he was able to do the whole thing. At the end of it, I asked, “Did you hear your voices?” He reported that he did not hear voices and he was symptom-free [while we were climbing]. That was probably the one day of his life that he didn’t hear voices.