Interview with Tom Kennedy: Co-Founder of HIKE For Mental Health
Hiking enthusiasts have long internalized the restorative feeling that comes from a walk or hike along a peaceful trail. Academia is catching up, with more and more studies proving the mental-health benefits of nature.
With this in mind, avid hiker Tom Kennedy and his two founding partners created HIKE for Mental Health (HFMH): an organization dedicated to eliminating the stigma of mental health disorders while raising money for research, and promoting the health benefits of being out in nature. If you’ve spent time on a long-distance trail, you might have seen the bright orange shirts proclaiming their wearer an active participant in fund-raising and support efforts for HFMH.
We were lucky enough to pick his brain about where the idea for HFMH came from, what they do, and how you can get involved.
The Trek: What is your backpacking experience and background?
Tom Kennedy: As teenagers we would go to Harriman State Park in New York and hike to Pine Meadow Lake… to go skinny dipping. On the walk to the lake, I would pass other trails and wonder where they went. It never occurred to me to get trail maps and find out, but the mystery of wondering where the paths led was my first experience with wanderlust.
Over the years I have hiked in many states. But life got in the way, and I got away from hiking in the latter part of my life. Then one day I stumbled across the Barefoot Sisters books and got hooked again. I read both books, and as soon as I finished I started over again. I bought a pack, drove to the Delaware Water Gap, hiked north on the AT for about 12 miles, spent the night, then hiked back to my car in the morning. I was hooked.
TT: What is HIKE for Mental Health?
TK: HIKE for Mental Health is an all-volunteer nonprofit group that I helped found in 2011. It combines my love of hiking with a desire to do good for others. The fundamental connection between mental well being and time spent in nature has been known since ancient times, but often it gets overlooked. We introduce people to hiking and LNT practices on small group day hikes while raising money for mental health research and preserving wilderness trails. In addition, long distance hikers on the AT, PCT, FT, and other trails can register with us online to tell their friends and family what they are doing. Their supporters go to the hiker’s online page to make donations and to leave supportive messages. Our hikes are free to register. We keep nothing and pay most of the operating expenses from our own pockets so that every penny raised from our hikes goes to the cause.
TT: What inspired you to co-found it?
TK: It was a strange set of circumstances that brought three souls together. I was living in New Jersey, where I met a woman named Nancy Kozanecki who was in town for business. We went out on the AT for a hike that weekend, and she ended up introducing me to Leo Walker. He was in town on business as well, and we went out for a few hikes. One night at dinner we talked about doing something to give back. Something to do with hiking. So Leo said “Ok, let’s think about this. Why do we hike?” I immediately said, “We hike for mental health.” Neither one of us knew it at the time, but that was the moment HIKE for Mental Health (HFMH) was conceived. Leo’s mom suffered from mental illness and my sister suffers from depression. When Nancy found out what Leo and I were up to, she wanted in, and HFMH was started in December of 2011.
TT: How can hikers get involved with HIKE for Mental Health?
TK: We encourage interested thru-hikers to register with our organization, tell their friends and family , then go hike. Once their fundraising total reaches $100, we will send them one of our wicking shirts. You can’t hike the AT without running into people wearing these shirts.
We have several annual hikes. People can join our Summit Mt. Washington hike, which happens every August and is always a blast. We average about 70 people, and I’d love that to double or triple in the next couple of years. One of our our most fun hikes is the Hike to Oktoberfest at Bear Mountain, New York. The hike ends at 12pm right when the Oktoberfest celebration starts.
Furthermore, we are always looking for responsible hikers who want to lead a HFMH day hike, anywhere in the country. The hikes can be as easy as a two-mile walk, but can be as long as you want. The day hikes are an important part of fundraising, and a way we introduce people to the health benefits of hiking and educate them about LNT principles.
As a side note, I am driving to San Diego this January to hike the Sea-to-Sea trail. When I return to Houston, I will be leaving on a walk from Houston to Austin via San Antonio to deliver hundreds of postcards that say “let’s eliminate the stigma of mental illness.” If anyone wants to send a postcard, the address is:
HIKE for Mental Health
207 West Heritage Dr
TT: The money you raise goes to different organizations. Who do you donate to, and why?
TK: 80% of what we raise from our hikes goes to the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation. Every penny they receive goes to grants for scientists doing break-through research into the causes and treatments for brain and behavior disorders.
The remaining 20% of funds are evenly split between the PCTA and the ATC to support their work of preserving our long-distance wilderness trails. I am very proud to say at this year’s ALDHA Gathering we presented the ATC with a check for $11,250.
TT: Many hikers have first-hand experience with the mental-health benefits of hiking. Whether we’re facing a transition period, getting over a loss, or just need to reset, a few weeks in the woods is miraculously restorative. Can you tell us about your efforts to share the “secret” healing power of hiking? (Question via Gabe Burkhardt)
TK: We just realized how much better we felt after hiking. Our standing joke is: “This is gonna feel great when we’re done.” HIKE for Mental Health is really founded on that intersection between hiking and mental/emotional well-being.
Around one-in-four families battle some kind of mental illness. During our day hikes, we talk about what we are doing and why we’re out here. After that, the floodgates open as people realize they are in a safe zone. They start to open up, usually one-on-one, as we continue the hike. I have had people say to me, “Tom, I have never been able to talk about this, but here I feel so comfortable sharing.” Eliminating the stigma of mental illness is a huge part of our mission.
We also get a lot of first-time hikers who discover for themselves the benefits of hiking and time in nature. Many go on to become regular hikers, and hiking becomes an important part of how they maintain and nurture their own mental wellness.
Small things like this let us know we are on the right track.
TT: There is growing recognition within the medical community for the potential benefit of Ecotherapy to certain patients for whom standard treatment hasn’t been effective. These people can undergo an amazing transformation following the completion of a big hike. Researchers working with WarriorHike are collecting data for these purposes. Does HFMH have similar plans? (Question via Gabe Burkhardt)
TK: This question gets right to the heart of what we are about—introducing people to the mental health benefits of hiking, eliminating the stigma of mental illness, and supporting research while helping preserve the long-distance trails.
Many studies have been conducted to validate the physical and mental health benefits of hiking. There was the 2010 report in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology which showed that time in nature leads to “greater feelings of revitalization and positive engagement, decreases in tension, confusion, anger and depression, and increased energy.” A study published last year by the National Academy of Sciences showed a 90-minute walk through a natural environment greatly reduced levels of brooding and obsessive worry. Several recent studies correlate hiking in nature to higher levels of creativity and problem-solving ability. Anecdotally, we know many people who flatly state, “Hiking saved my life.” I think it does for all of us, to greater and lesser extents.
We have focused our mission of funding research that has the potential to improve the lives of thousands of people who live with mental illness. At the same time, we strive to spread the message that time spent hiking and getting out in nature is a proven way to reduce stress and improve one’s mental outlook.
TT: Lastly, do you have any advice for aspiring thru-hikers?
TK: 1) Don’t start so early. You will have a better chance at completion if you wait until at least the end of March. Even if you hike slow, you still have plenty of time. I see it year after year. People start in February, run into really nasty weather, and wind up going home.
2) Start slow and let your body adjust. Eight miles a day for the first week is plenty. Trust me, the big mileage days will come. Don’t rush it.
3) Take your time to look around. It’s not all about getting to Katahdin. It really is about the journey. I think that is the biggest regret thru-hikers have is that they were so focused on getting there that they forgot to enjoy the ride.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity
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