Running gave her a way out of the darkness. Now she's helping others do the same.
Sasha Wolff's 'Still I Run' uses running to provide a lifeline for people battling depression
Sasha Wolff (in foreground center) organizes a group run for World Mental Health Day in October 2018.
Note: This post is by Laura Dattaro, a New York-based science journalist, writer and producer who has written for us previously on running her first half marathon and why you need to be careful running in the cold. The topic she writes about below is one I’m familiar with, as I’ve experienced bouts with depression over the years, so I know well the balm that running can provide — both from the physical exertion itself as well as the camaraderie of a running group. I think we all can learn a lot from Sasha Wolff, whom Laura profiles below. — Terrell
By Laura Dattaro
One day in 2011, Sasha Wolff went for a run. She had run before — her parents were runners, so she’d picked it up as a casual hobby in high school — but this run was different. Wolff had just been released from a week-long hospitalization for depression and anxiety.
Though she was diagnosed with depression and started taking anti-depressants in 2003 in her sophomore year of college, Wolff hadn’t visited a psychiatrist or therapist before her hospitalization. During in-patient treatment, doctors stressed the importance of establishing healthy routines. So when she went home, the running shoes sitting in the corner of her apartment called out to her.
“I went for a little run, or I should say a walk,” Wolff says. “I felt so much better afterward and I figured, ‘Alright, well there must be something behind this.’ I went to a mile, and two miles, and I finally put together the connection between running and mental health.”
Eight years later, Wolff has done far more than just make a connection between running and mental health in her own life — as important as that is.
In 2016, she started a Facebook page to build a community around running for mental health that now boasts thousands of followers on Facebook and Instagram, two running coaches who provide discounted customized training plans, and a group of mental health ambassadors across the country.
Wolff named the group Still I Run — a nod to Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise,” a powerful statement about persisting in the face of prejudice and injustice.
“To me that had a lot of meaning,” Wolff says. “Even though I had depression and anxiety, I’m able to get up everyday.”
Scientific research has shown that physical exercise is good not just for the body, but also for the mind. Running in particular may, over time, lead to positive structural changes in the brain and improve mood and cognition.
Wolff at the finish line of the Bayshore Half Marathon.
Running in a support group can provide additional benefits, particularly when that group is dedicated to serving a particular need or population.
Jo Dawes, a senior lecturer at the University of London, knows this firsthand.
“Whatever your situation, being with other people who are in your similar setting is a benefit,” Dawes says.
As a physiotherapist, Dawes frequently treats patients who are experiencing homelessness. In 2017, Dawes and her graduate students decided to study the effects of a running support group for homeless women.
The group, called A Mile in Her Shoes, organizes volunteer-led running groups and provides necessary equipment and clothing for women who are at risk for, have experienced, or are experiencing homelessness.
Dawes’ team interviewed 11 women who participated, all of whom reported some improvement to their mental health. A woman named Katrina, who was homeless and experiencing serious health issues at the time of the study, said, “I thought I will never get fit again, and now I suddenly start to believe that it is possible.”
Another, Sophie, who had found a place to live after being homeless, said, “I feel like mentally I’m in a better place, more motivated... It just made me feel like I could do anything if I pushed myself.”
Just being around others who are experiencing similar problems, Dawes said, multiplies the benefits of the physical activity itself. Many women returned to A Mile in Her Shoes after their lives had improved because they wanted to show other women what was possible to achieve, giving the running an even deeper purpose.
“They were attending to say, ‘I was in your situation a year ago, I feel much better, life can be better than it is for you at the moment,’” Dawes says. “The volunteers were important, but the other group members who had experience were vital. Social support, understanding, and kindness was really important.”
Social support is one of the key ideas behind Still I Run. The group — which is currently being evaluated for 501(c)3 nonprofit status — provides both public and private forums where people struggling with everything from anxiety and PTSD to postpartum depression can share tips and stories, post about how their runs went, seek help when they’re struggling, and find accountability by telling the group about their plans to run.
They’ve also launched a letter-writing campaign call RUN.WRIGHT.FIGHT. where people who are struggling can submit their name and have a handwritten letter of encouragement sent directly to them. Wolff has recruited 20 ambassadors for this campaign, including runners from Canada, New Zealand, and the UK.
In addition to helping individuals with their personal struggles, Wolff aims to increase public conversation to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness, which persists despite the fact that, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five adults in the U.S. will experience some form of mental illness in a given year—more than 46 million people. In May, Wolff was featured in Women’s Running as one of five women runners working to combat mental illness.
“Still I Run was founded with the mission that one, we will do our part to defeat the stigma, two promote the benefits of running for mental health, and three create a community and safe place to share stories of running for mental health,” Wolff says.
Wolff has long-term hopes to grow her organization to include financial support for mental health treatment, paired with a personalized running plan. She’s also creating a program where people can apply to create a local chapter of Still I Run in their hometowns.
In the meantime, she’s organizing runs for World Mental Health Day, and an annual May Run Streak where participants commit to run each day for the month of May. In 2019, 410 people from 47 states signed up, a big increase from 2018’s 88 participants.
“I want this to be something common to runners,” Wolff says. “It’s all grassroots right now, but I know that it has the potential to be a huge national movement.”
Participation in programs like Still I Run and A Mile in Her Shoes show the power that running — and especially running together — can have to improve lives. Many of the interviewees in Dawes’ study overcame great difficulty — sleeping on buses, walking miles to their destinations — to join the group runs, because of the positive impact it had on their lives.
One runner, a woman named Nadia living in temporary housing, perhaps put it best: “Every day I’m happier when I run.”
Could you or someone you love benefit from the programs and organizations mentioned above? Here’s where you can contact them and get involved:
Consider becoming a paid subscriber to The Half Marathoner and get access to our full experience — including more great stories (like the one above).