Should a Mental Health Emergency Derail a Dangerous Climb?

“I’m reticent at best to share so openly about what I’ve been going through,” he wrote in the caption accompanying all three videos. “In part because I worry about perception. But I also want to be careful not to overshare for the sake of sharing.”

It was his latest attempt to generate awareness around mental health, efforts that began in 2016, when he first shared his experiences publicly.

“I don’t want to be the poster boy for brokenness, that’s not what I’m trying to do,” Richards said in an interview. “I want to be an advocate for mental wellness. If I can speak to my own experiences in order to expand the conversation throughout culture and society then I’m willing to carry that flag in my small way.”

But for his climbing teammates, resentments linger. “I think he figured that he could leave and go back to being a ‘mental health advocate,’” Joyce, the filmmaker, wrote in an email. “Cory had to create a new narrative that protected his ego from his ever-present fear that he doesn’t matter.”

Richards understands the anger directed at him, but he sees it as symptomatic of the deep misunderstanding of mental illness that’s pervasive in our culture. “If I’d broken my leg, the conversation would be, ‘Well, that’s a bummer, sometimes you go into the mountains and things happen,’” he said.

“But because mental wellness is a topic of the mind and is unseen except through behavior, it’s nearly incomprehensible for people to apply the same logic and objectivity to it. I can’t demand that the world understands my experience, but I can ask that they believe it’s true.”

There are no easy answers when it comes to weighing the responsibility an individual with mental illness has to their teammates in the life-or-death sport of alpinism, but Richards believes it shouldn’t preclude involvement in high-stakes endeavors, or life in general. “What people with these struggles need is more participation, more engagement to understand that mental health issues aren’t prohibitive of living a full and complete life.”