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Climbing: The Sport’s Relationship To Mental Health

Mental health is fast becoming a global issue, with one in six people suffering from loneliness, anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. Although this is cause for concern, there have been more and more developments allowing people to reach out and get help due to the destigmatisation of mental health issues. 

A big way to boost mental health is to stay active, keep yourself occupied, and commit yourself to building healthy habits. Climbing is a great entry-level sport for beginners to start being active as it encourages a healthy lifestyle, gives them the chance to be a part of a warm, close-knit community, and offers a unique distraction from everyday troubles. 

Matthew Carter is an aspiring Photographer based in Leeds who is, in his own words, always looking for projects and collaborations that allow him to explore wildlife and the outdoors while highlighting all things ‘weird and wonderful’. With an emphasis on the idea of play, experimentation and adventure, Matt’s work deals with complex colours, compositions and subjects Matt’s work offers a unique Street Photography look with powerful colours contrasting with sharp attention to detail reminiscent of Ian Howorth’s work. 

More recently, Matt has been focusing on more traditional black-and-white Photography through his most recent project, ‘Climbing and Mental Health', in an effort to shift the focus of his pieces onto the meaning behind them. 

As Matt began to research the relationship between mental health and climbing, he was inspired by a wide breadth of research, from famous climbing films such as ‘Free Solo' and ‘The Dawn Wall’ to Laura Hospes project ‘UCP-UMCG’ which deals with her struggles with depression and her rehabilitation after her first suicide attempt. 

“I knew that climbing had had a huge impact on my mental health, and I was curious about why that was, which made me want to dig deeper.” 

Originally, the idea for the project stemmed from Matt’s personal experiences with climbing and mental health. Having struggled with anxiety and depressive episodes in the past, Matt states that “climbing has really helped me to ignore and escape from my own mind.” Matt set out on the task of reaching out to the public and his local climbing gym to seek out similar climbing success stories. 

“The survey was eye-opening as it gave me primary research on how people use the sport to better themselves." Matt discovered "that for people with anxiety and ADHD climbing greatly improves focus and helps to lessen overthinking as there is such a final goal when climbing, and that is to get to the top." This idea that climbing is such a complex sport with lots of different techniques to learn and complicated routes means that climbing has such a simple goal, just to get to the top, which means that it feels achievable and gives a quick and addictive boost of adrenaline.


The aim of my work was to almost be an advertisement of self-expression of how climbing has positively impacted my life and my body image. I had said early on in the project that I wanted to ‘payback’ climbing, as a whole, for making me so happy and helping me through all of my problems.” 

Interacting with members of the public and connecting with his local climbing community allowed Matt to branch out, becoming more extroverted, meeting new people, and building his confidence. I feel the same is true for everyone. Although it may seem daunting at first, the process of struggling towards a goal and ultimately feeling that rush of endorphins from the feeling of accomplishment is something everybody deserves to experience. 

Although climbing is overall good for boosting your mental health, it also has its ‘lows’ alongside its ‘highs’. “The grading of climbs is both a positive and a negative for mental health I feel, as it can be demotivating to plateau and get stuck in a particular grade for a long time and feel as though you aren’t progressing, however, it again gives you a goal to achieve.” 

Matt talks about his experience after injuring his shoulder for the second time this year and being unable to climb; “The mental effect of an injury felt like the end of my climbing ‘career’. I was scared that the hobby that I had become obsessed with was something I could never go back to which made me feel hopeless.” Being unable to climb left him feeling frustrated and even more obsessive about climbing. 

But Matt looked at this hurdle from a climber’s mindset and began to see it as just that—a hurdle to build up to and eventually surpass. “I wanted to climb so much, regardless of injury or not but I knew that that was a stupid idea and realised that it was better to stop while I could and get help so that I don’t squander the opportunity to climb in the future.” 

The process of becoming injured and having to take a step back helped to put it into perspective for Matt, realising that the ultimate goal isn’t to climb till you’re broken but rather to preserve yourself, body and mind, for the future. 

“After being injured during this project, my process changed, and I began making more self-portraits looking at how the injury affected me mentally and how the absence of climbing affected my brain." The project had begun to shift from communal candid portraits of climbers and their stories to his battle with being obsessed with climbing but unable to. 

Matt began experimenting with self-portrait photography during his recovery, capturing climbing techniques in unconventional spaces - Inside his house. “The combination of this absurd setting of a house and incorporating movements which highlight the performative nature of body position commonly used in the sport and the absurdity of the backdrop inspired me.” 

Matt talks about how he began to use the puzzle of setting up these elaborate self-portraits as a way to experience the mental stimulation that he gained from climbing, allowing him to pursue his passion without putting himself in harm's way. 

He hoped that the visualisation of his struggle would keep up his motivation to come back to climbing once he was fully received and well-rested, ‘even stronger’ both mentally and physically.


This project effectively captured both the turmoil of climbers and the serenity that comes with climbing. Effectively, climbing is a sport that pushes you, encourages you to persevere, and sets you down a road to a more sustainable lifestyle. 

With that, Matt only had one more thing to say on the matter, “Climbing is an incredible sport with an even better community, and I would highly recommend that everyone try it at least once, but be prepared to be hooked from day one!” 


Many thanks to Matthew for agreeing to be interviewed for this article and for creating an eye-watering-ly gorgeous body of work. You can see more of his work over on his Instagram, @mfhc_photo and the full interview he took part in will be available on The Social Talks website.

 Editorial Illustration by James Lewis, jlaemweiss Illustration.

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