Swimming through freezing lakes, crawling through trenches containing 10,000-volt live wires, wading through neck-deep swamps filled with mud and sharp rocks — these are just some of the obstacles Caelin White surmounted last year when he wasn't working on his dissertation or seeing clients.
From April to November, the University of Manitoba graduate student trained for "The World's Toughest Mudder," a 24-hour endurance race marked by such obstacles as the Electric Eel, the Arctic Enema and the Ball Breaker. The event challenges participants' strength, endurance and mental grit by placing them in settings where they must confront icy water, confined spaces, electric shocks and other dangers.
In 2012, Tough Mudder held 35 races worldwide, with some 500,000 people competing in the events. White was among the top 5 percent to qualify for the world championship race, held Nov. 17-18 in Englishtown, N.J.
His training paid off: Despite a twisted ankle and dehydration, and a moment when he wondered if he had the mettle to keep going, he emerged 12th out of 1,097 competitors.
"Everything I'd done over those months — everything I'd learned through other people who provided that support for me and taught me some invaluable lessons — all of that paid off in the end," he says.
Mental health platform
White learned about the race last January and knew he had to run it. He loves a challenge and was already physically fit, and the timing worked well since he'd just finished his coursework.
But he also saw an opportunity to make the event more meaningful: using the race to advocate for increasing access to mental health care. That mission is part of what drove him to complete the race under some very grueling conditions, including running most of it in the dark of night.
"The race is a perfect analogy for what it's like for a lot of North Americans trying to gain access to mental health services: It's obstacle after obstacle and hurdle after hurdle," White says.
For instance, though all Canadians receive basic health-care coverage through their government, a survey by Statistics Canada revealed that about 67 percent of those who need mental health care don't get it, due to lack of coverage for psychological services, long wait times in the public system and paralyzing stigma. Similarly, one in four Americans has inadequate access to mental health services, according to a 2008 survey by Harris Interactive and APA, and half of those with mental health or substance abuse disorders go without treatment, finds a 2006 survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
To raise awareness of the issue, in October White chatted with the Winnipeg Free Press and Metro News Winnipeg about the race and barriers to mental health care. His race campaign was also featured in a Global TV news segment, and he described his involvement in the race on a website he developed, regularly posting links to mental health news and resources for those seeking help. Since completing the race, White has also given talks to coaches and athletes about his race experience and the importance of psychological skills in sport. He is now continuing his training with the goal of winning next year's World's Toughest Mudder.
One step at a time
White's race training involved plenty of physical challenges. He did resistance training and plyometrics to build core and upper- and lower-body strength; logged hours of long-distance running, swimming and biking; and repeatedly immersed himself in cold water to prepare for the Arctic Enema, which involves diving into an icy tank of water, swimming through the ice and under a wooden plank, and "pulling yourself out on the other end before you become hypothermic," according to the race's website.
Equally important was the psychological training, which he worked into one of his central advocacy messages: Seeking help for mental health difficulties is a strength, not a weakness, and seeking support from others makes you even stronger. "What truly helps you master your life is not only having the willingness to set aside approaches that aren't working anymore and learning new ones that will, but also seeking help from others to facilitate that process," White says.
In his case, his trainers, including a sport psychologist, taught him a number of strategies for handling stress and discomfort. Lesson one: Start small and work your way up. If your goal is to spend five hours in freezing water, for instance, start with five seconds. It also helps to create diverse, smaller goals for yourself like running a single lap or simply avoiding injuries, rather than focusing on winning.
"When you go in with the goal of simply enjoying the experience, having fun and living in the moment, I think it allows you to perform much better," he says.
A second lesson is to challenge your discomfort. Physical pain and discomfort are two different entities, though they sometimes overlap, White explains. Being in pain often signals it's time to stop what you're doing, while extreme discomfort is more of a psychological state that you can learn to tolerate through proper training so you can move forward. For example, to make it through wet, freezing conditions over 24 hours, he visualized warm, supportive settings and used mindfulness techniques, which involved observing and accepting discomfort.
A third lesson is to seek support if needed. White and fellow competitor Junyong Pak — who won the race for the second year in a row — worked together to get through the Devil's Beard, where racers crawl beneath 60 feet of cargo netting that is strapped to the ground. White and Pak took turns crawling and lifting the net for one another, making the job far easier.
"We got through it in less than half the time than if we'd done it alone, and we were much less exhausted than we would have been otherwise," he says.
White's training and racing yielded distinct mental health benefits in his non-race life as well, he says. For one thing, getting his body and mind in optimal shape gave him more energy and confidence for school and work, and boosted his mood.
He also received a psychological lift from the support he received from classmates, his parents, his volunteer trainers and people who have read about his involvement in the race.
"People have told me I've inspired them to do things they wouldn't otherwise have done," White says. "That wasn't necessarily my immediate intention in doing this, but it's a really nice by-product."
No bus posters, please
The race is just a small part of White's advocacy work. As the student director at the Manitoba Psychological Society, he has helped MPS launch its public information campaign called "Mind Your Mental Health". The campaign aims to raise awareness among the public and legislators about stigma, access to care and putting mental health coverage on par with physical health coverage.
A main purpose of the campaign is to normalize mental health treatment, White says.
"Mental health issues affect everyone, just as physical health issues do," he says. "We want to hammer home the point that if you're having a mental health problem, it doesn't mean you're crazy — it means you're an average human being."
Stigma is a tough opponent, and it's important to think of fresh ways to spread the word, White adds.
"We know that stigma is a huge issue, but we haven't addressed it effectively," he says. "We need to be bolder and more aggressive in how we're dealing with it — not just put posters up on a bus." Not surprisingly, some of his thoughts involve racing, albeit less strenuous efforts than the one he's been involved in. He sees psychologists joining together for fun runs, for example. He also envisions creating a television talk show like "The Dr. Oz Show," where psychologists help to destigmatize mental health treatment and educate the public on evidence-based findings in entertaining but informative ways.
White's creativity and energy are just the forces needed to propel this important agenda, says Rehman Abdulrehman, PhD, White's clinical supervisor and president of the Manitoba Psychological Society.
"The student members who are part of the Manitoba Psychological Society are typically special people," Abdulrehman says. "But Caelin, in particular, has been very passionate and active in taking a lead role in working on some of our goals."
As for the Mudder, White says it has given him an even deeper commitment to his clients than he had going in.
"Everyone undergoes tough experiences in life — that's unavoidable," he says. "But people also need to know that effective help is out there, including for mental health difficulties. Unfortunately, these much-needed services aren't very accessible, and we need to fight in order to change that."
Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.
Catch up with Caelin White at the finish line of the 2012 Toughest Mudder race, as he describes the obstacles he faced on the way to finishing 12th out of more than 1,000 competitors.