I Set up Running Groups to Boost Mental Health

Jessica Robson, 25, has overcome bulimia, anxiety and depression, thanks to talking about her feelings as she runs

I started struggling with mental ill-health in my teens, in the form of anxiety, depression and bulimia. Bulimia was my coping mechanism for handling the intense emotions I was feeling. My parents had already separated, but my dad moved to another country when I was in my early teens and I started questioning my identity, comparing myself to my peers and battling with self-esteem. This may have been the initial trigger, as I was feeling things on a very intense level, as you do as a teenager.

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KEEPING CONTROL

I used bulimia to help me cope with my feelings until about the age of 19. My mum had tried to put me into therapy, but I was really resistant to getting better. I went to one therapy session and refused to go back. Then, when I was 19, I moved away from home and started running instead of bringing up my food because I didn’t want to be that bulimic girl any more. I’d had to make that decision for myself. Running brought me out of my depression, built up my esteem, made me look at my body for what it could do, not how it looked, and gave me a new identity – something more positive to hold onto.

FINDING SOLACE

I had my most recent prolonged depressive phase in the summer of 2017. I was living in London and found it very overwhelming when I went through a break-up and moved to another area of town. I’d escape to my mum’s every weekend to feel calm, and my mum dragged me out to run with her as she’s a keen runner. I realised after a while that I was opening up to my mum far more on those runs than I was during the therapy I’d been having for six months in London, where it was all very intimidating and I found it hard to be honest. When you take away eye contact and get outside, it removes some of the barriers and I felt far less vulnerable.’

A GREAT IDEA

My mum was getting a bit fed up with me coming home every weekend, and I began to think that perhaps other people need a less formal space just to be open with their peers – and that’s how the idea for my running group, Run Talk Run (runtalkrun.com), came about. ‘The Run Talk Run community has slowly built up. I’d put myself outside Monument station every Thursday evening but, despite talking about it a lot and advertising it, it was 50/50 as to whether anyone would turn up for the gentle 5K jog and chat.

That was really hard because I was still in the throes of depression and had a lot of social anxiety, but it helped me build the resilience I needed. Four or five months in, more people started turning up and we got a bag drop sorted. ‘I spread the word using social media. Run Talk Run was also in Metro last May, which helped, and soon people started to bring their friends or colleagues, and groups are now three to 15 people. I’m not a run coach or a therapist, but we’re all qualified to listen to each other and we should; we just don’t do it enough. I’m creating a space where we do that. It’s free and always will be, which is really important to me – mental health support should be more accessible, and speaking to peers is a great way to achieve this. ‘Run Talk Run is now international, with groups in the US, Australia and France.

The first person to set up a group outside London was Jen in Peterborough, who’d recently experienced the loss of a relative to suicide. All my run leaders (who have all contacted me to start a group) have had a very personal and strong reason.

THE FUTURE

I want Run Talk Run to continue growing in the safest and most nurturing way possible so it can reach more people. I’m applying for grants and funding so that I can offer support to the leaders where it’s needed. ‘As for me personally, I’ll continue to use running for mental-health maintenance. I’ve been running more seriously in the past few years and do some races (not competitively) to have a focus and a goal. I’ve done some marathons, but I have my first ultra relay in a couple of weeks’ time. The Speed Project involves running 340 miles, unsupported, from LA to Las Vegas, taking in Death Valley along the way. There are eight women in the team, so it’s less than 50 miles each, which we’ll do in 10K segments. We’re all London women apart from one, who lives in Florida, and we’re all running for a purpose bigger than ourselves…

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