Still I Run: Group creates space to support mental health by running

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Sasha Wolff is running a race she’ll never finish. It’s…

Still I Run: Group creates space to support mental health by running

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Sasha Wolff is running a race she’ll never finish. It’s a marathon for clarity and purpose, pushed by an effort to build endurance for her mind.

“I think 5% of the country actually runs. It’s not a very large percentage. So the fact that I can get out there, even though I have depression and anxiety, and still run — like, that sense of accomplishment is just absolutely everything,” Wolff said.

Over a decade ago, Wolff was not running. She was battling extreme depression and anxiety, going through extreme panic attacks and suicidal ideation.

“I didn’t necessarily want to exist, to be around anymore,” Wolff said. “Luckily, I was with someone at that time when I was in that crisis that said, ‘You should check into Pine Rest.’ I didn’t want to because there’s so much stigma around that. But that person relayed to me that you would go to the hospital for a broken arm, you would go to the hospital if you had pneumonia. Why not go to a hospital if something is wrong with your brain, if you have a mental illness?”

That shift in thinking brought her to Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services. She said the person who checked out was not the same person who checked in, describing her intake photo as unrecognizable.

“I was so outside of what my normal was, because I was so in the throes of depression and anxiety, that I didn’t know who that person was,” Wolff said.

During her treatment, experts equipped her with three tools to manage her mental illness: medication, therapy and a healthy habit. She gravitated toward running because her parents had modeled that behavior when she was younger.

“When I was released from the hospital, I put on my running shoes, took out my dog (and) went for a small little walk to kind of get into things. And it made me feel like I had accomplished something,” Wolff said of her first exercise after treatment. “I had literally just been hospitalized for depression and anxiety, but I was still able to get outside and walk the dog. So I kind of put that connection of movement and mental health together for me and started running.”

Wolff began to enter races: The Amway River Bank Run 25K was her first. As she did, she started to notice there were no groups of people who ran together to help manage their mental health.

“I looked in Grand Rapids for a group that ran for mental health, couldn’t find it. I looked in Michigan, couldn’t find it, looked nationwide, could not find a group of people that ran for mental health,” Wolff said. “And I thought, ‘This is just wild.’”

Rather than continue her search, Wolff started her own group in 2016. With a clunky website and a Facebook group, Still I Run was off and running.

“I think that’s really resonated with other people that run for mental health. They’re dealing with PTSD, they’re dealing with obsessive compulsive disorder, but still they run. Still I run. That is the whole purpose and meaning behind the mantra of ‘still I run,’” Wolff said. “Even though I have depression and anxiety, still I run. Even though I can’t get out of bed some days, I try my hardest, I’m out there for a walk, still I run.”

As the group’s size and scope grew beyond the walls of Facebook, Wolff formed a nonprofit. That gave birth to chapters, 13 in total. Today, Still I Run reaches as far west as Honolulu and San Diego.

“We’re a scrappy but mighty nonprofit,” Wolff joked. “My goal, my intention, my life’s passion now, is to make Still I Run a national movement of people running for mental health. Making running for your mental health as natural as running for your physical health.”

Still I Run: Group creates space to support mental health by running
Sasha Wolff created Still I Run, a group for those who run to support their mental health, in 2016.

The group has impacted around 20,000 people in seven years. Wolff says it’s a group formed on empathy and inclusiveness, offering a safe space to talk to others about mental health struggles and take action to manage them through running.

“Our run chapter captains are also Mental Health First Aid certified,” Wolff said. “And then on top of that, we’ve also got the Starting Line Scholarship. That is where we help people overcome any barriers they may have to running for mental health. We’ll provide you with shoes, shirts, shorts, sports bra, socks, watch. We’ll get you a certified running coach to work with you, (get you) entry into your first 5K or 10K and work with you for 10 to 12 weeks to get you in that healthy habit.”

In West Michigan, the group has a run chapter that will start in June and meet on the first and third Wednesday of the month at Lamar Park in Wyoming. It has virtual events, too, as the Facebook community continues to build the same structure of support that Wolff started.

Now, as a River Bank Run Charity Partner, Wolff’s race to help others find endurance for their own mental races is coming full circle.

“There’s just something really special about the River Bank Run for me. And I think the big reason is because after I found running for mental health, the very first race I ever did was the 25K. So the River Bank Run holds a really special place in my heart,” Wolff said. ” And the fact that it’s kind of come full circle with us being a charity partner of this momentous race for this city — I don’t know, I can’t even put into words how good it feels.”

Learn more about ways to support or get become active with Still I Run here.