Walking The Talk for Mental Health

Posted on: 17 May 2024

By Charly Dale, Head of Health at New Horizon Youth Centre

We know the benefits of therapy are widely acknowledged. However, traditional therapy settings may not always be accessible or suitable for everyone, particularly for young people who are neurodivergent and experiencing homelessness. In such circumstances, creative approaches like walking therapy can offer a lifeline, providing support while incorporating the benefits of physical exercise.  Young people who are neurodivergent and experiencing homelessness often face unique challenges in accessing mental health support. Traditional therapy settings might feel intimidating or overwhelming, exacerbating their feelings of anxiety and/or isolation. Logistical barriers such as lack of transportation financial restrictions or unstable living arrangements can further hinder their ability to seek help.

Walking therapy presents a refreshing alternative. Rather than being confined to a typically small room, therapy sessions can occur outdoors, often in natural settings like parks or quiet trails. This environment can be less intimidating and more conducive to open conversation, helping people feel more relaxed and at ease to open up. We know to make this a reality and accessible, several factors need to be considered:

  • Location: Choosing safe and easily accessible locations is crucial. Parks or community trails that are centrally located and well-maintained can provide ideal settings.
  • Flexibility: Offering flexible scheduling options is essential. This might involve accommodating varying availability and adjusting session times as needed.
  • Peer Support: Incorporating peer support into walking therapy groups can foster a sense of community and belonging. Connecting with others who share similar experiences can be immensely empowering.
  • Supportive Staff: Having trained therapists who understand the unique needs of neurodivergent individuals and are sensitive to the challenges of homelessness.  Before any type of therapy, building trust and rapport is paramount to how successful it is.

I spoke to our long-standing counsellor Holly Udobang at New Horizon Youth Centre who says,

‘Therapy sessions outside the therapy room are a unique and effective way to help clients with their mental health. I find that talking to clients whilst walking or being active in a natural environment, lowers their anxiety, improves concentration and engagement. One of my clients always goes on a long dog walk in the park whilst having her phone therapy sessions with me. Being neurodivergent, enclosed spaces can make her feel extremely anxious and nervous. Being outside and walking, helps her open up more about her mental health.  In the process of active, young people can experience increased awareness of their physical body and sensations enabling them to process their emotions, thoughts, and experiences in a different way’.

Beyond the therapeutic aspect of walking therapy, the physical act of walking can significantly benefit mental health. Research has shown that regular movement can:

  1. Reduce Stress: Physical activity triggers the release of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers and mood elevators, helping to alleviate stress and anxiety.
  2. Improve Mood: Exercise has been linked to the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, which play key roles in regulating mood. Even a short walk can have immediate mood-boosting effects.
  3. Enhance Sleep: Quality sleep is essential for mental well-being, and exercise can promote better sleep patterns, leading to improved overall mental health.

Walking therapy offers a modernised, creative solution for supporting the mental health of neurodivergent young people that may also be experiencing homelessness. By taking therapy sessions outdoors and incorporating physical exercise, this approach addresses accessibility barriers while harnessing the therapeutic benefits of nature and movement.

It’s a powerful reminder that support for mental health should be inclusive and adaptable, in order to meet people where they are at and feel more empowered in their healing process​.



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