Why I Hike for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention


Editor’s note: If you experience suicidal thoughts or have lost someone to suicide, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

In 2016, I “thru-hiked” the Appalachian Trail with my childhood friend Sunshine, fundraising for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) and raising awareness to stop the stigma surrounding mental health.

“Hiking Miles for Smiles” became our MO as we aimed to raise $3 for every mile we hiked and 100 percent of the donations went directly to AFSP. Now, it’s almost a year since we set off at Springer and I want to encourage others to take on their own hiking miles for smiles journey. Here are the five reasons why I hike for mental health and will continue to do so wherever the trail takes me.

“Hiking Miles for Smiles” became our MO as we aimed to raise $3 for every mile we hiked and 100 percent of the donations went directly to AFSP. Now, it’s almost a year since we set off at Springer and I want to encourage others to take on their own hiking miles for smiles journey. Here are the five reasons why I hike for mental health and will continue to do so wherever the trail takes me.

1. It’s Personal

In 2006, my cousin Eric died by suicide at the young age of 23. Eric battled his depression and bravely fought the illness. As 2016 marked the 10th anniversary of Eric’s passing, hiking miles for smiles became a meaningful part of my thru-hike. I’ve experienced the stigma, the isolation and the difficulty of losing someone to suicide, depression or mental illness. Thus, I want to start conversations to stop the stigma.

Depression sucks. I know because I have depression and anxiety. I’ve climbed mountains and hiked over 2,000 miles and some of my hardest days are getting out of bed. For those struggling, know you are not alone. I want to encourage others to talk about suicide and depression to stop the stigma surrounding mental health. We created a personal fundraising campaign with AFSP so 100 percent of the donations were going directly to AFSP for suicide and depression research, policy and education programs.

2. Hiking Miles for Smiles is Motivation, Motivation, Motivation

For every mile we hiked, we aimed to raise $3 for The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. The night before we set foot at Spring Mountain in Georgia, we reached our fundraising goal of $6,540. To date, we raised over $10,000 for the AFSP, hiking miles for smiles, and had important conversations about mental health on the trail, in towns and on social media. We are so thankful and grateful to our generous donors for supporting an important cause. During hard days, knowing others were counting on us to hike miles for suicide prevention with AFSP was motivating. More importantly, we were able to raise awareness and talk about a cause close to our hearts. The stigma surrounding suicide is significant and the conversations we had with people we met who were affected by depression or suicide motivated us to keep going.

3. The Trail Is As Much Mental as Physical

The saying goes, “The trail is just as mental as it is physical.” I firmly believe this is true; hiking day after day is hard on the body and mind. The elevation change on the trail is like climbing Mount Everest 16 times so it’s certainly challenging. However, there were days with conditions out of my control — like horrible thigh chafe due to hot, humid weather and forever soaked clothes — that made hiking harder. Furthermore, I found these days to be harder mentally than physically. For this reason, I knew I could hike but given the circumstances, I yearned for the comforts of town. I didn’t want to be in the woods. And, rallying through these times was tough.

4. Leave No Trace

Leave No Trace” are important ethics to live by in the outdoors and in everyday life. The seven principles are: Plan Ahead and Prepare; Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces; Dispose of Waste Properly; Leave What You Find; Minimize Campfire Impacts; Respect Wildlife; Be Considerate of Other Visitors. These seven principles are important to consider the impact one has on their surroundings.

Moreover, Leave No Trace serves as a sustainable guideline for outdoor adventures. Further, I believe this philosophy can and should be applied to day to day interactions. When comparing Leave No Trace to hiking for mental health, I want to expand upon “Be Considerate of Other Visitors.” Everyone is climbing a mountain or fighting a battle you know nothing about. The people you meet and the words you say carry significance and weight. It’s important to take care of yourself and your environment, whether it’s your mental and physical health, the Appalachian Trail or Trail Towns.

Furthermore, talk to people. Ask how they’re doing, check in and take the time to have a conversation if someone needs to vent. On the other hand, be sure to speak up if you see people failing to practice Leave No Trace. In my opinion, be respectful always, but discuss how their behavior is potentially harmful. Backpacking is an equalizer; everyone carries what they need on their back. Let’s keep it that way and do so sustainably.

5. Suicide is the 10th Leading Cause of Death in the United States

You can fight suicide. Don’t be afraid to reach out for yourself or a loved one and have a conversation about your/their mental health. Most importantly, talk saves lives. Hence, by being a safe person to have a conversation with, you can make a difference — perhaps save a life. If you or a loved one are in crisis call the 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Sometimes, checking in to let someone know you care or are thinking about them can give them the support they need to get through the day. For that reason, we signed the AFSP “Let’s Have a Conversation” pledge campaign to be a safe person to talk to in times of distress; to be open, honest and free of judgment when someone needs to talk. In fact, over 7,900 people have signed to date. Sign the pledge here.

“Hiking Miles for Smiles” became an important part of our Appalachian Trail story for raising awareness on how to get involved in the fight to stop suicide. Our Instagram allowed us to reach thousands of people. We hope people learn something about mental health and the Appalachian Trail through our story. On the trail, we had conversations about mental health almost every day. We were touched by the stories people shared with us.

In conclusion, wherever the next trail takes me, I will continue hiking miles for smiles to fundraise for AFSP and fight to stop suicide and the stigma surrounding mental health.

Follow this journey on the Hiking Miles 4 Smiles Instagram.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

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