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Fundraising extreme paddle boarder puts challenge before comfort

By Contributor

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Extreme situations test our courage, perseverance and mental toughness. No one knows that more than explorer Charlie Head, an endurance paddle boarder who has previously paddled the Amazon and the Blue Nile and is currently circumnavigating the Scottish coastline to raise awareness for mental health charity Dare2express.org, an issue close to his heart.

Fiona Burnett from Loch Eriboll, caught up with Charlie in Durness recently to discuss the links between his ongoing journey and mental health.

Charlie Head arriving in Durness. Picture: Fiona Burnett
Charlie Head arriving in Durness. Picture: Fiona Burnett

Is there still a stigma about mental health today?

Yes, absolutely. Mental health is still subject to an old world lens. Embracing a new way that we connect and become more open with each other has been a very slow process in our society. There are huge swathes of older generations whose wiring and rigid structures meant there was rarely a forum for emotional expression. Thankfully in younger generations, people’s increasing openness and emotional intelligence means mental health is being expressed more.

How widespread are the mental health issues you come across?

Everybody’s got their demons. So many people who think they’re okay are actually traumatised. It can be like a little bit of poison coursing through your life. You can be so bent and crooked but you're still hanging in there. You're still surviving. You’re still eating. You're still doing it but in reality you’ve completely redesigned yourself and you don’t even realise it because you’re surviving. We’re so good at that as a species. However, we all walk a fine line between surviving and it all catching up with us. It can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

How have you coped with fear?

During my education, a dictatorial, discipline, fear-based culture was used to incentivise achievement, resulting in a lot of bullying and a lot of trauma.

I now realise that you can have a beneficial relationship with fear in psychological as well as physical scenarios. It’s empowering to realise that acknowledging fear can actually enhance your abilities, it’s very presence helps me take on the task in front of me. Once I address the fear head on, I actually disarm it and it requires less of me than avoiding, masking or ignoring it.

Charlie Head is currently paddling around Scotland solo and unsupported. Picture: Donald Morrison
Charlie Head is currently paddling around Scotland solo and unsupported. Picture: Donald Morrison

Is there a reason behind pushing your body to the extreme limit?

I’ve discovered testing myself brings fulfilment. Putting myself in vulnerable situations is looking fear in the face. It’s knowing that you need to challenge fear with courage, crucially in combination with education and judgement. They’re all forms of armour. It’s an acceptance that adversity will be uncomfortable coupled with the knowledge that it’s what takes you to a place where your fear mutates into strength.

Where do you get your motivation from?

From a force that’s beyond me. The sense of purpose I feel in any given challenge is simply more important than me or my comfort. So if I’m going to honour the mission or the purpose then I‘ve got to go beyond what is comfortable for my body or mind otherwise I’m not going to do it justice.

One word to describe your life?


Current state of mind?


On your worst day how did you feel?

Depressed. Hopeless. Desperate, destructive, cursed.

What strategies do you use when you are struggling mentally?

Breathing. Breathing with discipline. Oxygenate the brain, oxygenate the body. Become present. Anchor myself. In reality there are infinite emerging strategies to help with mental health, so recognise your individuality, do your research, find what works for you.

For me, expedition life helps me, you take daily responsibility for closing in on a bigger goal, paddle by paddle. There’s a simplicity and a purity to it. It forces you to distill a longer journey into bitesize manageable steps, shutting out the noise of the world around me. By removing distractions, something you’d usually think of as exceptionally difficult gets inverted, instead fuels and empowers you.

What advice would you give to anyone struggling with mental health issues?

In that moment, often the most terrifying prospect is communicating. It’s hard but you just need to start your journey of opening up and self-educating. That's why community’s so important, it’s about finding people to express it to. If you’re rattling around in your own head you’re not necessarily voicing it, addressing it. So my advice is to seek out that person, that community that works for you to talk to. Failing that, use your camera to express yourself, it can be very effective.

Are your family and partner supportive of what you’re doing?

Very much so. They absolutely relate to it.

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