Content warning: this article briefly discusses suicide.

In May of 2020 a Southport man, Alex Fitzgerald, or Fitz as he’s known to his friends and as he very warmly signs off his emails, started a non-profit charity: Joe's Giants.

Fitz started the charity to support people who are struggling with their mental health, by walking among mountains.

Joe's Giants was born from the loss of a close friend to suicide in 2017, Joe Johnson, which is also where the charity gets its namesake from.

In 2019, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported that about three-quarters of suicide deaths registered were male gendered, 4,303, in comparison to 1,388 women. ONS also reported in the same year that the male suicide rate had risen to 16.9 deaths per 100,000 in England and Wales, this being the highest it had been since 2000.

Samaritans also reported in 2019 that suicide rates for female gendered people under 25 had increased by 93.8% since 2012.

Taking these figures into consideration as well as the findings by organizations such as Agenda and the Mental Health Foundation, on how the pandemic has made an already concerning mental health crisis worse, holistic, social prescribing solutions are becoming increasingly popular.

We spoke to Fitz, who started Joe's Giants in the memory of his dear friend, all about how mental health struggles are similar to tackling a mountain, about how being amongst the mountains makes us, as humans feel, the community they’ve built and on the benefits of climbing for the mind.

On why he chose mountain walking and hiking over other activities such as cycling, running or even cold-water swimming (all of which have been proven to boost endorphins and help mental illnesses such as depression), Fitz focused on the sense of achievement felt reaching the peak of a mountain and on the ability to converse.

“Reaching the peak, taking in the views, and understanding the potential of being able to push the brain, and the body, further and further up the mountain…The mountains and the push, allow a human to recognise their true potential, to what is possible, when they persevere, carry on, and don't give up. We use the mountains over other sports because the mountains continuously reward you with positive endorphins, breath-taking views, and brilliant conversation. With other sports it can be hard to get to know someone, and to understand someone else's situation.”

Joe’s Giants’ slogan is “Climb your mind”, so we asked Fitz about this, where it came from and how he see’s the mind and a mountain in relation.

“A problem in life, can be a struggle, and a mountain, can be a struggle. When clients attend our walks through their mental health troubles, many of them struggle, which is why they have come to us. We ask people to tackle the mountain, as if it is a problem. And we teach people that if they can reach the peak of a mountain, they can reach the peak of a problem. Not only this but, having the mountains as something to constantly look forward to, and to constantly look back on, allows humans to tackle the downfalls in life, due to occupying and stimulating the brain correctly, taking the right steps in the right direction, which in turn, means the downfalls within life, are easier to manage and easier to get through.”

Fitz is clearly a lover of the numerous positive side effects one gets when you are pushed to your physical limits, or at the very least when you push yourself and your body to do something outside of the every day. He understands that it can teach a human who is struggling with depression, or low self-worth, low self-esteem, to discover something new, positive and incredible about themselves: they can climb a mountain.

Fitz has also found the same wonder he sees in the mountains, in the people he shares them with too. The community of Joe’s Giants is clearly very important to him, “Meeting new people, sharing stories and steps, creating a community of people who have another human to turn too in times of despair, teaching others about the mountains, and showing those people who had no idea what was on their own doorstep, what we have here within the UK and within our homeland, and also, how to utilize what we have around us, to apply it into everyday life, and to mental health struggles.”

Of course, starting a charity such as this, at a time when so many people are struggling with heir mental health, opens up those working with Joe's Giants, particularly Fitz himself to the possibility of discussing hard, complex topics. Fitz isn’t a mental health professional, but he can empathise, listen and provide a safe space for people to join on a walk, never requires that people open up; but if they want to, they can.

He said “Our motto is within the fact that we do not force those to speak about what sometimes, they do not want to speak about. We create a friendly, relaxed environment, with normal people, who share a love for the outdoors and for the mountains.”

He clearly cherishes the chance to build on these relationships from the common ground of loving the mountains and the outdoors, describing a very natural progression in their connection with clients, “This connection, then, overtime, blossoms, and allows others to speak to us about what may be bothering them and we can offer our own advice and our own struggles to relate with them, to let them know that they are not alone.”

As Fitz stated when he spoke to us, “walking and talking, is therapy within itself”. Walking amongst the mountains with his charity, or the “Giants” as he refers to them, facilitates a place where people can open-up naturally, speak on their experiences all the while feeling positive about themselves, all the while achieving something in both body and mind.

The scenery of the mountains and the very literal perspective one can gain from being in the presence of a place so huge can have a calming effect on anxious minds.

Joe’s Giants has to date taken numerous groups on walking trips to Snowdonia, The Lake District and are even planning a trip to Scotland.

Speaking to him, you can hear that The Lake District is where a large part of his heart resides, he relayed that “those who love the Lake District, feel like exiles when away from it”.

With lockdown restrictions being eased we’re sure Joe’s Giants and Fitz will be up in those mountains more than ever, so if you happen to be in The Lake District and see a bright yellow jacket, or black T-shirt with the graphic of a mountain on the back and the words “Joe’s Giants” underneath, be sure to give the person wearing it a smile.

You can find out more information on Joe's Giants upcoming events here, follow their Instagram, Youtube and Facebook.

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