Communing With Nature

In their new book, a professor and a counseling center director show how being outdoors can improve students' mental health at little cost to colleges.

June 4, 2019
 

All across the country, college and university counseling centers are strapped for resources at a time when more students are seeking their services and reporting mental health issues. In their new book, Nature Rx (Cornell University Press), Gregory T. Eells, executive director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Counseling and Psychological Services, and Donald A. Rakow, associate professor in the horticulture section, School of Integrative Plant Science at Cornell University, discuss how communing with nature can help alleviate students' troubles. They highlight programs that institutions have created specifically around nature and mental health. Eells and Rakow answered some questions about the book via email.

Q: Can you explain how spending more time outdoors would help college students, particularly those dealing with serious mental health issues, such as significant depression, the aftermath of sexual assault or suicidal ideations?

Rakow: First, some background: habitual stress that may develop earlier can follow young people as they progress from childhood into college. The Center for Collegiate Mental Health reported that nearly one-third of students seeking care while in college were previously on some type of psychotropic medication, and one in 10 had been hospitalized for psychiatric reasons. As a result, as reported by the 2017 American Freshman Survey, the emotional health of incoming freshmen is at the lowest point in at least three decades. And the 2017 National Collegiate Health Assessment found that that 37 percent of 116,468 college students surveyed felt so depressed within the previous 12 months that it was difficult for them to function, and 59 percent felt overwhelming anxiety.

Considerable evidence now exists that time spent in nature can significantly reduce less serious cases of stress, anxiety and suicidal thoughts in young adults.

Eells: If students are dealing with significant mental health concerns, communing with nature can be an effective supplement to counseling and other treatments. The book goes into some detail about the psychological, emotional and physiological benefits of spending time in the natural world. These include reductions in stress hormones and the increases in calming processes.

Q: In today's college landscape, rife with technology, are students less inclined to explore nature?

Eells: Time with technology increasingly takes up more and more time outside of sleep and school/work activities. This often means less time in nature, making it even more important to develop intentional programs to get people connected with nature, like Nature Rx.

Rakow: Students face an enormous number of both demands and temptations on their time. In the former category, academic pressures have never been greater, with parents, faculty and peers all expecting high performance from students. Social media, alcohol and drugs, and social relationships all fill the latter category, and the internet in particular seems to have radically changed the landscape of what it means to be a student today.

Q: What can campuses do to encourage students to go outside, not just as a path from one building to another?

Eells: The book outlines several programs at different universities that have developed to encourage more time in nature. These programs include prescribing nature through counseling and health services, partnering with botanical gardens, and developing gardens and outdoor labyrinths.

Rakow: Despite all of these pressures, students do respond positively to suggestions to spend time in nature, if framed in ways they find appealing. At Cornell, we now have an e-media campaign that shows young people enjoying nature, and each one poses a question such as, “Did you know that … spending time in nature will help you perform better on exams?” Or: “Did you know that … spending time in nature can lead to better sleep patterns?”

Q: What are the most successful programs you've seen on college campuses, and how were those evaluated?

Rakow: The most successful programs are ones that reach students when and how they need help. At the College of William & Mary, for example, students man tables just before and during exam time and hand out Park Prescriptions to fellow students, complete with maps of where to find nature on campus. Leaders at University of California, Davis, have developed a very successful Nature Rx class that includes fun activities that reduce overall stress levels students experience, in contrast to the many more academically demanding courses they likely are taking. And at Cornell, our Cornell Health clinic has developed a very successful Nature Prescription program as part of students’ electronic health record.

Q: What are your favorite stories you've heard from students who have used this approach?

Rakow: It’s the students who say things like, “I was close to giving up, and nature really saved me and allowed me to face my problems,” or “I never knew there was such a beautiful world out there; thanks so much for exposing me to it.” We have to recognize that while we consider them young adults, college students are still very impressionable and can be counseled to adopt more positive lifestyles. Through Nature Rx, we’re hoping to contribute to the well-being of these bright minds who will lead our next generation.

Eells: My favorite theme I have heard from students when discussing spending time in nature has to do with how that time helps students realize the rhythm of life outside of their experience. Nature brings us serendipitous beauty and the natural rhythm of birth, death and rebirth.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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