This Couple Setting Out On A Two-Year Van Trip To Shine A Light On Mental Illness Is Sure To Inspire You

You’ve probably seen some variation of the #vanlife story over the past few years. People living in cars, crossing the globe on a quest for something real.  It’s not a new concept — William Least Heat Moon wrote Blue Highways back in ’78 — but the idea of a road-trip-as-lifestyle-choice has continually evolved and taken on new opportunities for monetization (social media, blogs, etc.).

For those who take the leap, it’s an achievement worth noting. Just last week, we ran a story on a couple and their dog vagabonding across Central America. This week, we bring you professional outdoor photographer John Rathwell, writer Tracy Guenard, and their project Searching For Sero which is currently crowdfunding on IndieGoGo. “Sero” is short for serotonin — the chemical thought to be linked to happiness in the brain — and Rathwell and Guenard are setting off to tell the stories of people finding happiness through outdoor sports.

The project has some pretty lofty ambitions: both John and Tracy lost close family members to suicide and both of them later found solace by getting active in the outdoors.  While on their two year journey they plan on working with mental wellness organizations and outdoor sports communities across Canada and the U.S. — photographing, interviewing, and sharing the stories of people who enrich their happiness through adventure. These stories and photographs (or Sero Stories) will be posted weekly on their website as their travels progress.

We spoke to John and Tracy about the project:

What sparked it all?

John: Less than a week after [my] dad passed away from suicide we were walking along the river in Ontario and I was like, “I really wanna do a project that will shine a light on mental wellness and suicide prevention.” I threw around some different ideas and we came up with this project called “monsters of mental illness.” It was going to be a portrait series of people that have been diagnosed and are being treated or have been treated for mental health issue. It was going to be everything from grandma knitting to a guy playing soccer with his kid. Just to show that if you’re having troubles, you can get help, and life can go on.

Everything was lined up to do that project and it was going to be a a local thing but I was having a lot of trouble getting motivated. What it came down to for me is…I have no interest in shooting a portrait of grandmas knitting (laughs). My life has been about outdoor adventure and outdoor sports and my photography career has been about that and that’s what I’m passionate about. So we started thinking, how can we tie in mental wellness and outdoor adventure?

Tracy: The things we like.

How did it evolve to Searching for Sero

John: For a personal project, if you’re not motivated to do it you’re not gonna do it. This is something I could get motivated about. Over my photography career, I’ve been really focused on commercial work and not a lot of personal projects because the commercial work involved activities I love.

This is an opportunity to combine things I love with a personal project that I’m passionate about.

So, Tracy, you’re the writing element? 

John: She’s the brains element.

Tracy: (Laughing) Yeah, the plan is to do one Sero Story a week. We also plan on writing other pieces around our story, John and I. The Sero stories will be about other people that we want to feature but we also plan on writing blogs about what we’re going through. Our adventure. Hopefully we’ll be doing two of those posts every week.

How’s social media playing into all this? 

Tracy: We’re already trying to be very heavy on social media to keep people up to date. Our Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, and Instagram accounts are updated a lot. We want people to know where we are and what we’re doing at all times.

Social media is even helping us connect with people who might be Sero Stories. Members of communities for outdoor activities have been in touch and some others who are eager to get people outdoors have been reaching out.

We’ve already heard some REALLY amazing stories.

How’s the route coming together? Maine by 2018, right? 

John: We’re starting in May of 2016 and heading to Saint John to dip our toes in the Atlantic and then, ideally, we’ll wrap up in Maine in the spring of 2018. At that point we want to start working on and creating the photo book. It’ll be our best images from the last two years. The proceeds from that book will go toward suicide prevention charities. From there we’re talking about shipping the van to England but…one step at a time.

Do you have pre-planned Sero Stories?

Tracy: We have some that we’re very excited about. People have to be willing to share. Some of them have been so generous with sharing their life, their struggle, their personal issues. It’s important to let the subjects speak for themselves. We have to be sensitive. These are people with human emotions. But, by shining some light on that person on their network and their life, we’re helping a much bigger audience. We’re also planning on going out to places where we don’t have a network and reaching out to local outdoor sports networks and suicide prevention networks.

John: we’re bringing our bikes and surfboards and skis with us too. We’ll be having our own adventures while we’re doing this. We’re trying to connect and integrate with locals to progress this project that way. We’re excited to go out and find some stories.

Are all of the stories mental health affiliated?

Tracy: Not necessarily. We want to shine light on mental health and mental wellness. In our opinion everyone is at risk of suffering a mental illness through the course of their life. You see the numbers and one in five will suffer from a mental illness or mental episode at some point. That’s a fact. A lot of people aren’t aware of that. Prevention matters when you talk about mental health.

Intervention and crisis numbers and things like that absolutely help but in our opinion you don’t need to have heart surgery to know that eating McDonald’s is bad for you. You don’t need to be told that more than a few times. You know that some behaviors are bad for you and some are good for you. You know some choices and activities are good for your physical health, for us the same idea holds for mental health. Regardless of what [mental] state you’re in, it’s important to go out and do what makes you happy — things that shed frustration. We want to promote the useful message of the people who have suffered but also the importance of having that kind of lifestyle and behaviors that’s positive for everyone.

We hope to get some discussion around prevention and mental wellness. We want to achieve a lot and we know that this is all for nothing without discussion. We want to relieve some of the stigma around the fact that we’re all at risk. We can all have a burnout. You don’t know what’s coming around the corner, and it’s important for people to know what to do when things get dark.

Why the focus on outdoor sports? 

John: Some people find happiness through music or….knitting. We’re not saying that outdoor adventure and outdoor sports are the only way to find happiness and boost your serotonin levels — that’s just what we’ve focused on because that’s what’s helped us through….

Tracy: Life

John: Exactly, going through my father’s suicide and not long after that Tracy’s aunt passed away from suicide as well.

When did you realize outdoor sports were it for you and for this project? 

John: After dad passed away–it was kind of weird. We were biking on a Sunday and I always bring my bike into the house after riding. I don’t leave it on the rack. For some reason that Sunday we came back late. I was tired so we left the bikes on the car, which is stupid. They we’re definitely gonna get stolen. Luckily, they didn’t but that Monday my Mom calls and told me Dad passed away. I just got in the car and went home to Lindsey [4 hour drive]. I didn’t grab anything, I just went. After a couple days of being home and going through that emotional rollercoaster I realized:I have my bike. I have all my gear. It was still there from the Sunday before. So I went and rode.

John: We didn’t realize it at the time, but that moment was a pretty big influence on this project. That was a moment where I realized what outdoor sports did for me and I wanted to help make that connection for others. My family always looked at my choice of spending a lot of time outside and spending a lot of money on gear as the wrong choice. I grew up in a family that thought: go to school, get a job, retire. Why would you buy a kayak when you should be buying a house? I’m hoping this project shows people a reason to get outside and put some time into outdoor sports. It costs money, it takes discipline–there’s so many connections and reasons as to why we’re doing it. The more I think about.

Tracy: It’s like our life has come to this for so many reasons. It’s the next reasonable progression.


To learn more and contribute to this project, check out their Indiegogo page.

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