Mind & Spirit

Teen mental health: The benefits of running

By: Kate Daley

Photography by Tobin Grimshaw Author: Canadian Living Credits: Photography by Tobin Grimshaw

Mind & Spirit

Teen mental health: The benefits of running

By: Kate Daley
"Everyone wants happiness, no one wants pain, but you can't get a rainbow without a little rain!" shouts Rachel, 20, as she jogs up a small hill. It's a powerful backdrop to the sound of 30 pairs of running shoes hitting the pavement.

As I run beside her, I'm totally floored. When I heard about a running group 
for teens dealing with mental health issues, I expected to encounter unhappy kids being forced to run who wouldn't want to talk about their problems. In fact, it was quite the opposite.

Rachel's rainbow mantra is particularly true for this group of teens. All of the participants in The Credit Valley Hospital's Child and Family Teen Run Group Therapy Program have been referred to it by a psychiatrist. The teens are coping with everything from depression to anxiety to obsessive-compulsive disorder. Many have been suicidal—some have even made attempts—but they're all working through their issues on the road.

Exercise therapy for mental health
As we round the final corner of the 3K training run, we're greeted by a receiving line of mentors and volunteers cheering and giving high fives. We could be first in or last to finish—everyone is greeted like they just ran a personal best in a marathon, and that includes me—I'm welcomed as part of the group.

Dan McGann, who leads the twice-weekly runs during the 12-week program, stands at the end of the line, congratulating each teen by name. "Running was a significant factor in getting me to where I am today," says the 56-year-old.

Growing up with two alcoholic parents, Dan battled both depression and alcoholism. During a bout of depression in his 40s, when he was a social worker at The Credit Valley Hospital, he decided to take up running. He started with a Learn to Run program that soon led to 5K and 10K races, and eventually, he worked his way up to running half- and full-marathon distances.

"I felt so good that I went to my chief of psychiatry at the hospital and said, ‘I want to take teens suffering from depression and anxiety and get them running.'"

Funded through the Trillium Health Partners Foundation, the teen program started in 2006 with only eight participants. Numbers have grown steadily every year and now there are up to 34 teens participating in the twice-yearly sessions, which involve training for a 5K or 10K race. Even though Dan is now retired from The Credit Valley Hospital, he continues to work part time, leading the weekly runs and operating his own therapy practice.

Erasing mental health stigma by sharing
This week, the run group's speaker is 17-year-old Josh. "A little over two years ago, I found myself sitting in a police interview room for the special victims unit and I had to describe how I was emotionally, physically and sexually abused by my father," he says.

He describes how he battled depression and attempted suicide multiple times as a result of the abuse. I look around and see tears in everyone's eyes. Now a graduate of the run group, Josh is a coach who mentors teens in need of help. "A big part of my recovery was being in this run group. It gave me hope and it helped me gain faith in myself and in other people.

"When you feel good physically, it's much easier to feel good mentally," he explains to the group. "This is so much more than a run. It's an accomplishment. When you have people supporting you who are here for the same reason, it's an environment that makes you feel better about yourself and helps you gain confidence." Josh wanted to share his story to let other struggling teens know that there is always hope.

I chat with other teens about their experiences. The openness with which they speak about their challenges with anxiety and depression is astounding. They want to talk in order to help others who might be going through something similar.

Sixteen-year-old Laura joined the run group to help manage her severe anxiety and depression. Though it took a bit of persuasion, she found that running helped lift her spirits. "The strategies you use in life can be used in running and vice versa," she says. "It helps me keep going instead of giving up."

"All day you're holding your emotions in because people don't understand. Here, you can let it out because people won't judge you," says Jake, 17, another graduate and mentor. "It's a massive sigh of relief. You lean on each other because you don't feel the need to hide it."

Group therapy benefits the whole family
The group isn't just for the teens, either. Parents can join the runs and the group sessions, too. "We were seeing families with a lot of conflict and stress," says Dan. "They weren't having any positive time together." The rule is that family members aren't allowed to argue during the sessions. "Then they have an achievement that they can be proud of that week."

It's well-documented that endorphins from exercise can help improve mood, and the program is beginning to see proof of these benefits. Teens fill out a log before and after runs and measure their moods on a scale from one to 10. The hospital also tracks progress pre- and post-program to chart the positive effects, says Cindy Grosjean, patient care manager in Mental Health Services at the hospital.

Running with these teens reminds me why I lace up every day—for the physicality, but also for the mental benefits that running affords me. "It's a psycho-spiritual experience," says Dan. "The group dynamic creates a contagious spirit. We would do anything to support each other. It's a powerful, positive thing."

Discussing mental health with your teen is not easy. Here are some tips on how to broach the subject.
This story was originally titled "Running For Their Lives" in the August 2014 issue.
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Mind & Spirit

Teen mental health: The benefits of running