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Therapist Uses Extreme Sports To Treat Mental Illness

iFly Seattle
Mikayla Cheney says the flight in iFly's wind tunnel made her live in the moment.

You might think you’d have to be crazy to jump out of an airplane or scale a mountain with no ropes, but new research suggests extreme sports could actually have some therapeutic benefits for people with mental illness.

A Seattle-area therapist is hoping that action sports can help troubled young people find some relief, just as they helped him with his own struggles.

Brandon Stogsdill grew up around Tacoma, in a household afflicted with poverty, addiction and mental illness. As a young man he grew deeply depressed, and soon got wrapped up in a seedy lifestyle. He stole cars, broke into houses, sold drugs and, not surprisingly, made enemies.

Stogsdill got a gun to protect himself. One time, there was a tussle at a 7-Eleven, and he pulled it out. He discovered that just showing the gun gave him a rush.

"And something happened that I never anticipated, which was a boost of, just, power. And he cowered, and I just found my drug of choice was this overwhelming feeling of power," he said. 

That led to a series of escalating confrontations, until one day he pulled the trigger two times. No one was hit, but Stogsdill was arrested and thrown in prison for more than three years.

Inside, he had what he describes as an epiphany.

"God changed my heart and gave me a crystal-clear purpose to work with youth, and prevent them from standing in the very prison cell that I stood," he said.

From A Sentence To A Mission

That began a remarkable turnaround for Stogsdill. He earned a college degree, then a Masters of Clinical Psychology at the University of Washington. All along, he was also snowboarding and riding BMX bikes, and he found that it helped keep him sane.

So Stogsdill, now a child mental health specialist at Seattle-based Sound Mental Health, had an idea: could the thrill from action sports help get the right circuits firing in kids’ brains?

"My hypothesis at the time was, it should transfer their risky behavior into a constructive alternative, and among adolescents, physical activity decreases mental health symptoms such as depression and anxiety," he said. 

Since then, new research has bolstered his idea. Studies suggest extreme sports can lead to feelings of connectedness and well-being, and they’re being used to help veterans with post-traumatic stress.

Therapeutic Free-Fall

That promise brought Stogsdill, along with 10 kids age 11 to 17, to iFly Indoor Skydiving in Tukwila.

At iFly, there’s no airplane and no parachutes; just a vertical wind tunnel with massive fans that blow “skydivers” up in the air at the exact speed to simulate free-fall.

As the kids received instruction on the physics of airflow and how to move during free-fall, 15-year-old Mikayla Cheney was sweating a bit.

"I'm scared and I'm anxious. I'm really scared of heights and I've only been on a plane once," she said. "I know if I can overcome that, I can overcome all these other things in my life."

Cheney got into counseling two years ago. Years earlier, she lost her brother to suicide and was overcome with depression. She described the experience as being overwhelmed by sadness and anger, and she learned to cope by cutting herself. Like many of people who self-harm, she found that the pain gave her relief.

"I hurt on the outside so I'd just get my mind off the insides. If I have physical pain on the outside, then it won't hurt anymore," she said. 

Into the Wind Tunnel

Now Cheney is finding new ways to get that feeling, to counteract the despair with a physical rush. And this time it’s a healthy channel—through extreme sports.

She and the other kids put on flight suits, helmets, and goggles, and lined up in an airlock compartment. Then one by one, they were led into the sealed Plexiglas chamber of the wind tunnel.

At first, the kids were tossed like paper in the wind. Then, with an instructor’s help, they gradually gained control over their movements. At one point, each flew straight up 30 or 40 feet, and gradually settled back down.

Mindfulness in Flight

When Mikayla emerged from the chamber, she was buzzing with exhilaration. It took a few minutes to come back to earth.

"He held me and we went up—straight up in the air. That's when I screamed! Just so much adrenaline. And I was kind of freaking out, but it was the good kind of scared," she said.

She says when you’re flying, you can’t help but live in the present moment.

"I'm in the air right now and I need to focus on how my body is moving, and how I'm going to go up in the air. It's definitely, you're mindful of what's going on right in front of you, and you don't need to worry about anything else," she said.

Therapist Stogsdill plans to keep pushing at this connection between adrenaline and mental health, even linking up with an Australian psychologist to advance the research. He hopes extreme sports will help restore a mental balance for more kids, just like they did for him.

Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.
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