By Belinda Kirk (Founder of Explorers Connect)
It all changed for me seventeen years ago standing in a queue on a grey day outside the iconic Royal Geographical Society (RGS). I had just led an expedition of young people to the Amazon that summer and we were gathering again to present our reports. At 26 years old I was the youngest Chief Leader the British Exploring Society had taken on. I already had 8 years of jungle expedition experience but I still had more to learn about leadership. In particular understanding how engaging others in adventurous activity can have a profound impact on them at the time and on their futures.
A woman approached me and asked ‘What did you do to my daughter’. Eeek, a multitude of situations rushed into my head. There was a girl who had been bitten by a bat, a team that missed their re-supply and only had crackers to eat for 24 hours (the same team had run out of toilet paper so maybe that was a happy coincidence), a few incidents of parasites including a very juicy botfly that popped out of one lucky teenagers’ scalp …. which one was this? I wasn’t expecting such a direct criticism, especially before we’d even entered the building. But before I could answer she hugged me. A big bear hug like we’d known each other for years. She explained she was Alice’s mother and the penny finally dropped. Alice* had been one of my toughest challenges on the expedition. A 17 year old young woman from the Midlands, who had – I learnt during the expedition – a history of self harm and had been struggling academically and socially. At the start of the expedition she was the least engaged and I was worried she was not forming friendships within the team. I tried several approaches including giving her small but important responsibilities, this pushed her to interact with everyone in the group but also, little-by-little, proved - to herself and others - that she was a valuable member of the team. That she and her contribution were important. Over the weeks her social skills and confidence grew. From the outside there was no mistaking the transformation, the girl who had joined the expedition and the young woman who returned to her family in Britain were strikingly different. However, I’d never considered how deep this transformation might be and how long it might last once we’d all returned to ‘real life’. It appears some real changes endured, 6months later here was her mother hugging me in the rain, describing how she now helps out at home, has shown improvement at school and maybe most importantly had a couple of new friends.
For all my memories of that wonderful expedition (the boat that sank, the Toyota I turned over on a jungle track, the inedible tins of sardines, the vibrant young people, the friendships forged), this moment outside the RGS is still the one that remains in my head with the most clarity. Because it was at that moment that I came to fully believe in the power of adventure to change peoples’ lives for the better.
Before that I was forever searching for my next fix, my next adventurous challenge, hooked like an addict on the life-enhancing properties of getting out of your comfort zone. After that moment it has been more about understanding and putting into practice the ways that I can make a positive impact on the world around me though adventure. Adventure changed my life and over the last 25 years of taking others on adventurous activities, I have seen it transform people of all ages, walks of life and abilities/disabilities. My slight obsession with understanding ‘why’ started that day. Over the years I’ve spent more and more time looking into the research and noticing how adventure makes it impact. How can we harness this power better both for ourselves and for others?
I made decisions on how to support, manage and intervene in the Amazon and on many adventures afterwards, using my instinct and experience (which should not be underestimated in any practitioner in this field) but what if I’d got it wrong or what if I could have done it better? I was aware of some of the theory around personal and youth development but with hindsight I realise now how little I really knew. Even now, having been interested in the area for years, the research and guidelines can seem impenetrable. So I want to help make it more transparent.
The role that adventurous activity can play in a society facing a mental health crisis shouldn’t be ignored. Approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year in the UK (MIND) What we need is a bit more of thinking outside - forget the box. I believe that taking part in adventurous physical activity has the potential to enhance a participant’s life in ways that cannot be achieved elsewhere and I’m not the only one.
Each year more evidence emerges supporting the efficacy of adventure on well-being including positive life transformations, enhanced quality of life, emotional regulation, development of emotional agency in interpersonal relationships, joy, social connections, escape from boredom, pushing personal boundaries, overcoming fear…. I could go on.
For example, studies investigating the health benefits of outdoor adventure programs for at-risk youth have found long-term benefits including enhancements in self-concept (the beliefs you hold about yourself). Or the effective role of adventure for recovery amongst military personnel with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
This led me to wanting to get researchers in the field together - to see how we can make their work more accessible and help more adventure practitioners put it into practice in the field. This has evolved into a new concept: the Adventure Mind conference. Next year I’m launching ‘Adventure Mind’ through Explorers Connect, a conference bringing together researchers, adventure practitioners, mental health professionals and policy makers to better understand how adventurous activity can positively affect mental health in the UK.
Its not just about using adventure for therapy, its much broader than that. The conference is about finding ways to help ourselves and others be the best that we can be through adventurous activity. Its about providing opportunities for all of us to know ourselves, find out what we are capable of and grow (so that fewer of us get to the point of needing therapy!)
Explorers Connect was set up to make a difference, initially to connect the existing expedition community, as I believed that everyone should go on at least one expedition in their life. Up until that point my life had been running expeditions, so I thought that expeditions were the key to transformation. Explorers Connect has now been operating for ten years, and has naturally evolved over that time, with our members asking for more small and closer-to-home adventures. This is now one of the main pillars of our community because the impact from offering accessible adventures can be at most transformational, and at the very least a refresh button to the modern world. Also I love planning and leading them!
But Explorers Connect keeps evolving. In 2014, we started publishing stories of the positive effects of adventure on mental health hoping to encourage a dialogue within and outside the community. That has definitely had some effect and when I discuss mental well-being and adventure today, I’m no longer met with confused looks. But its not enough. Explorers Connect needs to evolve again and we need to take this another step further. The mission at the heart of Explorers Connect is to encourage more people to live more adventurously more of the time - to start an adventure revolution if you like. As an organisation driven by a mission rather than a business model, evolution is everything. Adventure Mind is the next step in our evolution, this is where I believe we can make the biggest difference at this time.
Explorers Connect is still a not for profit, with no outside funding, run by a tiny team of part-time staff and volunteers. But our reach and aspirations remain grand. It can be difficult to know where to spend our limited resources but I believe that looking back to our roots and my belief in transparency, collaboration and connecting like-minded people, we will have more impact and create a longer-lasting network by spearheading a conference in this space.
I also want to be a better leader myself - to be better equipped and informed to make the right decisions when leading adventures. I want Explorers Connect to run adventures that are even more transformational than they are already, whilst fiercely safe-guarding the fun parts too.
But I believe the wider adventure industry that Explorers Connect tries to support through its jobs board, Join-a-Team posts and targeted support of specific projects can benefit from sharing this information too.
Adventure Mind aims to improve the way adventure is delivered in UK to positively impact mental health. To help outdoor professionals, outdoor organisations, researchers and individual adventurers get access to the latest research, build improved networks and share resources - to increase the impact and effectiveness of their work. Also, to spread the word that adventurous activity can be a positive choice for mental health and to explain how. And to help decision makers and individuals make informed choices.
Everyone who is interested in this area is welcome. However, the first event is tailored towards those actively involved in designing and evaluating adventure. There is a lack of communication between practitioners and researchers. There's an army of amazing outdoor leaders and organisations who see it at work every day and could benefit from better access to the research supporting their impact - to better explain to clients, potential funders, and the wider community the importance of adventure work and to promote better practices. This is not exclusively for adventure therapy practitioners, it’s for everyone who uses adventure positively for mental health.
The conference is about networking a group of like-minded individuals to support each other over time, so having engaged expert delegates at the conference is as important as those presenting. I’m very excited at the quality of wonderful delegates already signing up to the event and there will be plenty of opportunities for them to exhibit and share their own work and projects.
I am so excited to herald the next chapter of Explorers Connect and the part we can play in helping adventure to be considered as part of a much wider agenda. We look forward to sharing news and stories from our first conference as we prepare and deliver it. Its time adventurous outdoor activity was recognised as a catalyst for positive mental well-being and its power harnessed now when we need it more than ever.
Find out more about the first Adventure Mind conference
By Belinda Kirk
*name changed for privacy