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How hillwalking has helped Ross on his recovery journey

In August 2017 I had reached the lowest point of my life, I was going through a period of severe depression.

I couldn’t sleep properly, I didn’t want to eat, I had lost interest in everything I would normally enjoy, I couldn’t concentrate properly and I was crying every day.

It feels almost unbelievable looking back on my memories from that period. It’s still hard to believe how low I was and it can still feel emotional thinking back to it.

Having to pull my car over on the dual carriageway between Perth and Dunfermline to cry my eyes out is one that sticks out and in that moment I just didn’t want to be here anymore. I was struggling so much to cope with the pain I was feeling.

At that time I felt like I was drowning and lost. The world didn’t make much sense anymore.

I did try to distract my mind but even when I tried to pick up a book or watch a film I couldn’t turn off the anxiety I was feeling. My mind felt like a prison I was unable to escape from.

But, thankfully, something did work.

My colleague Megan, who knew I was going through a difficult time, somehow convinced me to go with her up to Perthshire one Saturday to go Munro bagging.

The Munros are the 282 highest mountains in Scotland and there are quite a few in the Perth & Kinross area, not too far from my native Fife.

We spent that Saturday in the hills summiting Beinn Ghlas and Ben Lawers.

To be honest I don’t remember it making much difference to how I was feeling that day but come the following weekend I felt compelled to head out up another Munro, this time choosing Ben Chonzie.

Megan was away so I took my wee westie, Dex, with me for some company.

I remember on the drive thinking I might have to turn back once I started the walk if I could tell a mountain walk was a bit too much for him but as it turned out it was me who was struggling to keep up with him! He would even whine when I tried to stop for a wee breather!

Being out on the hills with others was a great opportunity to open up about how I was feeling inside.

As the weekends passed I started counting up the Munros and it was all I wanted to do in my free time.

It helped so much because it gave me a very simple objective – getting from the car park to the top of a mountain – that I could easily focus on. Exercise and being out in nature is also great for wellbeing – the brain releases endorphins that make you feel a bit calmer and happier.

Importantly, being out on the hills with others was a great opportunity to open up about how I was feeling inside.

I then spoke to a therapist who helped me understand why I was feeling how I was feeling. That did so much to help me on the road to recovery from depression.

Looking back I am so grateful hillwalking came into my life when it did. It found me when I was in a very dark place and the more mountains I climbed the more my mental health improved.

Over four years on and hillwalking is still my passion. I am out most weekends when I can and now I’m within a few weeks of completing the Munros, something I would never have imagined when I took my first steps up Beinn Ghlas in August 2017.

Dex is a little older now so doesn’t come out on the big hills anymore but in the last couple of years we’ve ticked off all of the Fife hills and explored many sections of the Fife Coastal Path and Pilgrim Way together. Fife is such a great place to live for the outdoors, it’s arguably the best region in Scotland for walking per square mile.

I am so grateful to live in such a beautiful country. I’ve explored so many incredible places in Scotland now and still have many more to discover. I wouldn’t have realised what we have on our doorstep if it wasn’t for taking up hillwalking.

Ross Cunningham (1080 × 1080px)
Ross Cunningham (with Dex Onhil 1080 × 1080px)

Exploring Scotland, making new friends through walking, and being in nature have all helped with my wellbeing and standing on top of a mountain looking out on a grand landscape really helps to put how I’m feeling into perspective. My friend Debbie talks about hillwalking being the ideal way to ‘press the mental reset button’ each weekend, and that’s something I definitely believe in.

In 2020 I decided to launch a website called Mountains Mend Minds to promote the mental health benefits of hillwalking to others, you can visit it at www.mountainsmendminds.com

For anyone looking to get into hillwalking I would recommend the Fife hills as the best place to start – Benarty Hill is a great introduction to the hills and it has a beautiful view from its summit over Loch Leven, Scotland’s largest lowland loch.

Make sure to be prepared though! I recommend visiting the Mountaineering Scotland website for advice on staying safe in the hills and to find a hillwalking group near you so you can meet some likeminded people.

Thank you for sharing your journey with us, Ross. Please be sure to give Dex a gravy bone from all of us here at Penumbra Mental Health.

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