"Golf saved my life."
How golf could be an antidote to today's mental health crisis.
One in six adults suffer from common mental health issues every week, research in the UK has revealed. But according to one leading academic, golf’s combination of social and physical activity, played in open, green environments, could be a powerful tonic for those suffering depression and anxiety.
Syngenta Growing Golf speaks to two people for whom golf has proved important in recovering from depression and bereavement – and hears from environmental psychologist Prof. Jenny Roe on why golf is good for both mind and body.
“Golf saved my life.”
Sam Gerry was nine years old when his dad bought him his first set of clubs, which he started taking out on the short course near his house in the suburbs of Boston, Massachusetts, a couple of times a week.
By the time he was 13, Sam’s passion was growing and he started playing competitively. If he wasn’t out on the course, he could be found on a simulator or playing Tiger Woods PGA Tour on his Xbox.
But one February morning when he was just 14 years old, Sam woke up and everything felt wrong. It seemed that his passion for everything, including golf, had vanished overnight.
Depression hit Sam hard, with his first harrowing episode lasting several months. It led him to consider taking his own life.
It was a surprise trip with his grandfather to The Masters at Augusta, Georgia, that marked the turning point for Sam, and there he felt the first sense of joy he had experienced in months.
“I could escape to the golf course, and the only thing I was focused on was the game."
Upon his return, Sam got out on the course again. It was no quick fix, and even at the time he did not fully see the impact it was having. But, looking back, Sam can see that playing golf was a hugely significant part of his recovery.
“I could escape to the golf course, and the only thing I was focused on was the game.
“I wasn’t necessarily worrying too much about how I was playing at first, but just trying to enjoy the game as much as I could. That really helped immensely.
“It was great while I was out on the course to have that escape, for sure, but because I played regularly it definitely built up to create a longer-term effect on my recovery.”
Today, Sam recognizes the aspects of the game which most benefitted him during his battle with depression.
“I feel like the environment definitely plays a big part in it all, too."
“When I play alone, the focus required and the challenge of each shot really helps to get my mind off of things, for sure. But playing socially is also really important, and that combination of the game itself and spending time with my friends or my dad or my grandfather – that really helps get me through it.
“I feel like the environment definitely plays a big part in it all, too. It’s something that you don’t always recognize in the moment, but then you look back on it and you can see the impact of being out there in the open and the sunshine, and what a help that was.
“I just think about everything this game has given back to me, and I really appreciate what it’s done. You really could say golf saved my life, and that’s not an exaggeration.”
A Modern Crisis
Research from the UK reveals that every week one in six adults suffer from common mental health issues such as anxiety or depression, and global reports demonstrate that poor mental health is one of the main causes of the overall disease burden worldwide.
More concerning still is that mental health issues are on the rise, especially among young people. While this is due in part to people feeling more able to report their mental health concerns, it remains clear that modern life is taking a toll on the population psychologically.
Professor Jenny Roe is an environmental psychologist and the inaugural Mary Irene DeShong Professor of Design and Health and the Director of the Center of Design and Health at the Architecture School, University of Virginia. She specializes in researching restorative environments.
Jenny says, “I think the modern mental health crisis is a problem with many different facets and angles to it. One of which is certainly the digital revolution. We are being inundated with digital media, meaning people today are always multitasking, always doing two or three things at the same time.”
“I think the modern mental health crisis is a problem with many different facets and angles to it. One of which is certainly the digital revolution."
Studies demonstrate that this kind of multitasking not only lowers productivity, but also generates physiological stress responses and negative emotions which impact our mental health, our work, and even our family relationships.
Prof. Roe highlights social media, the most prevalent digital distraction, the use of which is now regularly linked to wider mental health issues.
“Social media plays a big part in this, of course,” continues Jenny. “I’m not completely anti-social media by any means; I think it can definitely help to connect people. But at the same time we have developed a loneliness epidemic in the UK and in the USA, along with increasing chronic mental health problems in terms of anxiety and depression. If you look at the increase of mental health problems among our teenagers and young people in particular, who tend to use social media the most, it’s truly shocking.
"It’s at a point that people now say sedentary living is the new smoking."
“Another really important facet to this crisis, though, is that we are all living more sedentary lifestyles. We are simply all sitting in front of screens for too long, for too many hours of the day. It’s at a point that people now say sedentary living is the new smoking. Technology can help us in extraordinary ways, of course, but the flip side is that we are not moving. And the association between physical activity and mental wellbeing is very well known.”
Against this landscape of new challenges to our mental wellbeing, Jenny believes firmly in our ability to create a healthier mental lifestyle, and that the environments we expose ourselves to can play a huge role in that process.
A Healthier Mental Lifestyle
As the global conversation about mental health continues to grow, with it grows a recognition of the need for methods and tools to maintain our mental health, comparable to the way many already maintain their physical health though healthy diets and exercise regimes.
In response to this trend, an entire self-care industry has blossomed to meet the demand, with new books, apps and online channels focusing on ideas like mindfulness and wellness. But in a hectic modern lifestyle, Jenny suggests that interacting with nature can actually be one of the easiest ways to support good mental health.
“Simply exposing yourself to the outdoors and green space is sometimes much more feasible than it is to follow a mindfulness practice.
“When you step into a green space, there’s a number of things that happen with both your physiology and your psychology.
"You literally manage stress more efficiently when you are around green space."
“Your parasympathetic nervous system kicks in – the system that’s associated with relaxation – and your stress physiology actually changes. You literally manage stress more efficiently when you are around green space.
“Your mood improves. And when your mood improves that allows space for other things to improve, including your creativity, your cognitive flexibility and your ability to strategize.
“We know it helps relieve depression, anxiety and anger. We know it helps performance, relieving brain fog and mental fatigue.
“And when it comes to exercise, which is great for mental health in itself, there’s a huge wealth of evidence, using robust, scientific methods, to show the benefits of ‘green exercise’ – exercise in the natural outdoors – as compared to, say, exercise in the gym or indoors.”
My Story: how golf helped me survive bereavement
“Being out on the course with my friends, breathing in fresh air, away from an increasingly fast-moving world – it’s the perfect tonic.”
Jan Fawdry enjoyed a childhood that many would call idyllic, growing up on a farm in the vast open spaces and rolling green hills of Suffolk, England.
This world suited Jan well, but her desire to forge a career in teaching took her out of the countryside and into the classroom.
Starting out as a teacher, Jan soon progressed through the ranks and became a member of the senior management team at a boarding school in Essex, assuming the responsibility and demands that come with such a position of authority.
“I would seldom get home before 8PM in those days, and would often be on call at the weekends too,” recalls Jan.
“I’d spent the best part of my working life stuck inside a windowless office, fully engaged with my work and spending very little time outdoors."
Fast-forward the clock to just a few years ago, nearing the end of a long and successful career, when Jan’s husband John began quizzing her on what she would like to do once she retired.
“When he asked,” Jan says, “I realised that, actually, it was never something I had given a great deal of thought to.”
“I’d spent the best part of my working life stuck inside a windowless office, fully engaged with my work and spending very little time outdoors.
“I think, subconsciously, I’d assumed that when the time for retirement came, this was the next phase of my life where I could just get out and enjoy the time and freedom with my husband.”
Sadly, for Jan this was not to be. At the age of 61, she lost her husband to cancer. Suddenly, she had to confront a very different future, and a very different retirement.
“Initially, I just filled my time with work. It’s a natural inclination to busy yourself, thinking that this will somehow be a welcome distraction. But deep down inside, you know it’s not a sustainable form of healing.”
Suffering a bereavement, particularly that of a spouse, is known to greatly increase the risk of developing mental health issues. Jan used her work as an escape and to keep her from sinking, but she could not put off retirement and the changed picture of her life forever.
“When you lose someone so close to you, of course, a piece of you goes with them. While you can never fully heal from something like that, there is also an element of ‘fight or flight’ that kicks in, a need to avoid feeling sorry for yourself and to get out there and do something, something for you.
“Over the years John and I had talked about trying out golf, so I decided to give it a go, and that’s when I came across love.golf, a starter programme for groups of women.”
The impact of that simple decision would be far-reaching for Jan.
“The women I’ve met have been truly inspiring, and a fantastic source of support and encouragement, both on and off the golf course."
Spending time out on the golf course, meeting like-minded women from a range of different backgrounds, has had a profound influence on her social life – and her confidence.
“The women I’ve met have been truly inspiring, and a fantastic source of support and encouragement, both on and off the golf course.
“Being out on the course with my friends, breathing in fresh air, away from an increasingly fast-moving world – it’s the perfect tonic.”
A Unique Position for Golf
With the positive impact of green space on mental health becoming more evident, it can be argued that golf holds a unique position as a sport and hobby, owing to the game’s green arenas.
With this fact in mind, can golf benefit a healthier mental lifestyle? Ultimately, could it be part of the solution to the modern mental health crisis?
I think to get out and play golf you are really helping manage your mental health in a very holistic way.
“Absolutely,” Professor Jenny Roe continues, “I think to get out and play golf you are really helping manage your mental health in a very holistic way.
“First of all, it’s a social sport. People can play alone, obviously, but most golfers tend to play with other people.
“Secondly, it’s improving your physical activity. It keeps you mobile, which is key.
“Thirdly, you are challenging yourself in terms of technique and practice.
“And finally you’re getting this big beneficial effect to your psychological wellbeing through exposure to the natural environment.
“Golf combines all of these factors in one activity.
The benefits cited by Jenny here are echoed in advice on managing stress and supporting good mental health from organizations across the globe, including the National Health Service in the UK and the American Heart Foundation in the USA.
A Powerful Message
Interestingly, these same factors sit among the aspects of the game that many non-golfers find most attractive, according to Syngenta’s Global Customer Insights research.
When asked, “What about golf piques your interest?”, non-golfers' top responses were:
1. Being outdoors
2. Relaxation or stress relief
3. It presents a mental challenge
4. Spending time with friends or family
5. It presents a physical challenge
So, while the golf industry is making efforts to promote the significant physical health benefits of playing golf, it could be argued that the mental health benefits are even more significant, and also more appealing, to prospective golfers today.
As a growing portion of the population becomes invested in forging a healthier mental lifestyle, the golf industry has a clear opportunity, backed by sound research, to present itself as a tremendously healthy and holistic activity to support that lifestyle.
Time for golf
Back in Boston, Sam Gerry is on the course, enjoying his golf.
“Golf gives me a really good excuse to put all of the technology down and forget about it for a while. A sport like golf is so enjoyable that you can completely forget about your phone and social media and everything, which is kind of awesome.
"I definitely need that time, and I know that many other young people do too.”
Case Study: Parkrun
What golf can learn from Parkrun's success.
On an October morning in 2004, 14 people met in Bushy Park, London, for the first Parkrun event.
Today, almost two million active runners across 6,000 clubs worldwide make up what the BBC has called “a global phenomenon”.
Parkrun’s 5km timed runs are organised in pleasant parkland settings all around the world every single week. The events are free, safe, open to everyone, and incredibly popular.
In 2018, Staffordshire University in the UK conducted a study involving “parkrunners” who identified as having experienced mental health difficulties.
Each participant in the study reported that Parkrun had been beneficial to their mental health, and the report demonstrated that Parkrun increases confidence, it helps to reduce isolation, depression, anxiety and stress, and it gives participants space to think.
"The sense of community, friendship and camaraderie was more important to participants than physical exercise, suggesting that initiatives emphasising a sense of community and support may be beneficial to mental health and wellbeing.”
The powerful benefits of being outdoors, being active, and being part of a community activity, which are so clearly demonstrated in this study, are also very significant for the golf industry.
Taking place in beautiful natural settings, providing a community to join, delivering a great way of keeping active and fit, and providing a sense of accomplishment to those involved – all of these factors are mirrored closely in golf, and create a powerful message for the industry to take to potential golfers.
The benefits of exercise on mental health have long been acknowledged. However, this new research supports other studies which demonstrate that exercising in natural environments, combined with opportunities to socialise and join a community, adds even greater value to that activity in terms of mental wellness.
This marks a clear and powerful opportunity for the golf industry: to showcase the game’s many mental and physical health benefits – not only to those facing severe mental health difficulties, but to everyone who is invested in creating a healthy and balanced lifestyle.