Running Through Europe To Deeply Reflect On Mental Health
In 2015, Andrew Richards flew to Europe to begin his three-month journey towards World Mental Health day. He called himself the ‘Light Runner’.
His major purpose of this big challenge was to improve mental health throughout the world. He decided to do that with just one backpack, by running through Europe and capturing his adventures.
The concept of the Light Runner may not make sense to some of you straightaway. Well, it didn’t make much sense to me at first. Why run, to spread awareness of mental health? Why photography? The more I looked into the Light Runner challenge, the more I got curious about the story behind it.
Here is the story of Andy, the person who became the Light Runner.
Choosing To Be The Light Runner
—How did you come up with the idea of the Light Runner?
Back then I was doing a lot of running. It was great for my mental health. Whenever I was stressed, I would go for a run. I ran further and got more adventurous. Somewhere along the time, I came up with the idea of running and exploring the world with just my running backpack. So I made a goal that if I completed a 100-kilometre ultra-marathon, I would make the idea into reality.
I wanted to be doing all sorts of different challenges, which is where photography came into the idea. Photography, especially night photography with light painting, was my interest and skill that I had. So I figured it was a good way to capture the moment of my adventure and share the message with people.
Since the idea was the combination of running ‘light’ with just one backpack and doing night photography using ‘lights’, I named this challenge the Light Runner.
—Why were you so passionate about improving the situation around mental health?
Mental health is something that affects everyone, and yet, there is a real stigma against it. We all struggle with various kinds of mental health issues from time to time through life challenges.
I believe the two concepts of mental health and physical health are linked to one’s health. For example, running can improve your mental health as well as physical health. That is why I think mental health should be seen the same way physical health is seen. Just like physical health, mental health or mental illness should not be a label that someone gets put on.
I also wanted to share that one’s health is a continuum so that you can always improve your health even when you are not unhealthy both mentally and physically.
The Biggest Struggle
Despite the original goal he had in mind, the Light Runner challenge began with struggles of his own mental health. His first challenge in Europe was to overcome those struggles and to actually become the Light Runner.
—What was the biggest struggle you had during the Light Runner challenge?
The biggest mental struggle I had was right at the very start. All I had planned was to fly to Europe but I had really high expectations of myself with this challenge. When I arrived in Venice, I was suddenly over there, whether I was ready or not.
I was trying to make some videos but I really felt like I was failing my mission. I was getting more and more anxious and depressed with this sense of failure of what I would set out to do.
—How did you change your mindset to a more positive state?
I learned the biggest lesson to reevaluate myself and that it is okay to reset or change the goals so that they are more realistic. That is the point that I said to myself, ‘Don’t worry about the videos, just live it.’ It was like a ‘Forest Gump’ kind of moment where I was ready to start running.
From then on, although there were still mental challenges, my renewed sense of purpose was there to keep running and going on adventures. I came to believe that even if I didn’t know what the future held, I trusted that I would be able to find a solution when I face a challenge. So each challenge was an opportunity for me.
Face Up To The Issue Of Mental Health
Once He overcame his first and the biggest challenge to starting running, he has come face to face with his own mental health as well as the issue of mental health in general.
—How did you approach the stigma around mental illness during the Light Runner?
Before this challenge, I always felt shy and I had never really admitted to my own struggles. Being the Light Runner made me realise that I had been, am, and will encounter challenges with depression or anxiety at various times and stages in life. I realised that the most important thing is, as the motto of the Mental Health Australia says, that ‘mental health begins with you’. It is up to each of us to work on our own mental health.
So I learned so much from this challenge that I needed to learn. Before then I wasn’t happy and I was stuck in a rut, and with this challenge, I learned to be happy without a home or all these things in modern life. I realised if I can be at my happiest moments in life without anything, that’s going to make me stronger to move forward.
—It has been about 7 years since the Light Runner. How do you think society’s view on mental health changed in the world?
I think the world is changing, and the importance of mental health is starting to be more recognised. There definitely has been an improvement. From what I can see, how younger generations are being raised is quite optimistic, compared to the generations of my grandfather and my father, when mental health wasn’t observed or worked on.
But there is a new challenge with mental health, which is the effects of social media. Back in 2015, it seemed like the whole world was addicted to it to the state where it is hard to draw the line between this digital world and the actual world. This I think is the recurring theme for discussion with people that needs to be addressed.
So, What’s Next?
As the Light Runner in 2015 and now the head of a team building company named Unique Team Building, he is ready to move forward and continue improving the world’s approach towards mental health.
—What are your current goals regarding the Light Runner and improving people’s mental health?
Through my work with Unique Team Building, I’m focused on helping workplaces to create environments and support networks that are encouraging mental health. It is not just trying to get rid of mental illness but providing safe places so that people can support each other. I would like everyone to be as mentally healthy as they can be so they can live the happiest lives.
For the Light Runner, I’m no longer running, but if there are people out there who are keen to become the next Light Runner, that would be amazing.
TO BE YOUR HAPPIEST SELF
Listening to the story of the Light Runner was like following through the path to becoming mentally healthy. While running through the landscape of Europe with a strict rule of not staying in accommodation, Andrew experienced mental struggles, reflection and reevaluation of his own mental health, and overcoming those challenges by himself. At the end of his adventure, he had become the happiest state of himself without things that we often think are important for our happiness.
BEING RESPONSIBLE FOR OUR OWN HEALTH
Nowadays, more and more scientists and professionals in various fields explain the importance of mental health. It is safe to say that we are starting to recognise how significant it is to be healthy both mentally and physically in our lives.
But do we truly understand our mental health? Don’t we blame ourselves or see ourselves as failures when we struggle with life challenges? Are we thoughtful enough to ourselves so that we can take care of ourselves when being mentally unwell?
I believe there is much more room for improvement. As a global society, we need to work more on mental health. It is so much more than just understanding various mental illnesses and helping those who struggle with their mental state. We should start with recognising the fact that mental health is everyone’s agenda. When being confronted with a challenge in your life, stay still for a while and reflect on your feelings and thoughts. Educate yourself about how to seek help when you need it.
We are the ones who can improve our own mental health. Are you ready to become the next Light Runner?