Managing mental health should not be like climbing a mountain

One of the biggest challenges for society in Ireland is to try to manage mental health and general wellness, says Everest climber and hotelier John Bourke

Last May, John Burke became the first Co Clare man to summit Everest. Also during 2017, he created the charitable foundation Elevate, based at the Armada Hotel (the hotelier's business interests also include Hotel Doolin), whose slogan is, Raising the Banner for Youth Wellness.

It offers programmes, at no cost, to young people in secondary schools, youth organisations and youth reach centres in Co Clare.

The purpose is to give young people the skills, confidence and opportunities to fulfil their own ambitions, while promoting individuality, positive self-image and self-care. Courses offered include mindfulness workshops, wellness programmes and inspirational talks.

From Spanish Point, John has spoken openly about dealing with personal anxiety through mindfulness. As part of Elevate, he has also developed an intensive personal wellness programme for his employees.


What is your proudest achievement?

“Everest was an incredibly proud moment for me, and right now I’d say that it would be. But if I’m looking back in years to come, with a more balanced approach, then probably my proudest moment was retaining jobs in my businesses during the recession. I found that incredibly difficult and challenging, and experienced much anxiety. Not every business made it through; not every family made it through with their house. It was a defining period in our lives, and the connection is that we’re now investing in the wellness of people at work.”

What motivates you in your work and your life?

“Self-improvement, trying to be a better person, and making an impact on the business. By the time the new week, month or year rolls around, I want to say I have moved things forward in some way. For myself, I’m motivated with personal skills or fitness goals. In work, I’m motivated with product development, and challenging and upskilling the team.”

What do you do to keep your mind and body healthy and well?

"For my mind, days on the hills or days trail running. If I can't get to one of my two favourite places, Carrantuohill or Connemara, I run from Liscannor to Doolin and back, along the Cliffs of Moher. I find that really good for my mind. In the hills you can disconnect and put the phone away. You're in a moment that's not part of everyday life. I also enjoy crossfit and boxing."

What are the most important factors to maintain a healthy society?

“I think creating a level playing field for all socio-economic classes with education, where everyone is aware of healthy living, and has supports to manage their minds. I like being in the gym and going to classes, but not everyone can afford memberships, or mindfulness sessions, or whatever people need. Obesity will be one of the biggest health factors, but there’s so little awareness in certain socio economic classes about healthy eating, balanced diets, and the dangers of sugar. Higher socio economic classes have access to everything they need, if they choose to be healthy, whereas lower classes don’t. I think that is very unfair.”

What needs to be done in Ireland to achieve this?

“Investment and education, particularly education in nutrition and mental health. There’s a divide in terms of treatment in the healthcare system. The public health system is such a big monster and it will be a long time before it’s up to scratch. You hope that is it moving forward, but nutrition and mental health need investment, to be ahead of the curve.”

What is the most pressing health issue in Ireland?

“Mental health and young people. One of the biggest challenges for society in Ireland is to try to manage mental health and their general wellness. Issues are coming faster than we are able to deal with. One in three have had mental health challenges by the time they reach the age of 13. Nine out of 10 teenage girls have body image issues.”

How do you think the Minister for Health needs to tackle this ?

"The minister needs to cut the red tape and delays in policy change. Sometimes by the time surveys are commissioned, impact reports done, and programmes put together, it can take years and things have progressed so fast. It needs a really effective team of well experienced and qualified people to constantly review it. I believe every county should have a Jigsaw (mental health centre for young people). Clare doesn't have one. While there is a big push to roll out information online, people need centres where they can drop in if they are feeling troubled, or where the school can refer them. Organisations like CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) need funding for the backlog of people waiting to get assessment. Mental health difficulties for young people are only growing, so grow the budget now, not in five years."

What do you do to relax and unwind?

"I spend time in the hills. I'm happy on my own, but there are a few people I enjoy walking with like my friends Gavan Hennigan and Peter O'Connell. When I'm with them I'm not going to get engaged in conversations about work. They're not interested in the hotel business!"

What makes you laugh?

“Time with my wife Aoibhín and the dogs. They provide endless entertainment and comic relief. Those are the best times. We have two French mastiffs, Reggie and Ruby. They have had a big impact on my life as you have to walk them every day. It’s a great way for Aoibhín and I to have time together.”

Where would you like to live and why?

"I would never see myself living anywhere other than Ireland, but if I did it would be a place like Chamonix in France. I've been climbing there. It's at the foothills of some amazing mountains like Mount Blanc. I like the changing seasons there. Everyone seems to be active, enjoying the outdoors and the fresh air around them."