Natural Landscapes: Effects on Mental Health by Kristen Langeste


Natural Landscapes: Effects on Mental Health

Kristen Langeste

Being Albertan born and raised, I have had the luxury of visiting both Banff and Jasper National Parks countless times. Since I was very young, probably around six or seven years old, I have been drawn back to those majestic parks, always to find something new to love each time. There seems to be a sense of wonder and curiosity that continues to draw me back, no matter what the season or weather.

Although I grew up in the city, I have an affinity for nature exploration. While Edmonton holds a very special place in my heart, it does not seem to have the same effects as our national or provincial parks do on my mental well-being. Mental health and wellness is something I feel very strongly about. Throughout my time in university, I have experienced anxiety from the compound effects of stress that come along with balancing classes, work, extracurricular activities, and volunteering. As difficult as these mental burdens can be to deal with, I have found that the ability to immerse myself in natural landscapes and be disconnected from all the demands of technology has been incredibly therapeutic.

Attending a presentation (Parks and Protected Areas: The True Alberta Advantage) by Alison Ronson, Executive Director of CPAWS Northern Alberta, I learned about the relationship between the increase in both children and adults experiencing mental health problems, including attention deficit disorder (ADD) and anxiety, and the decrease in the amount of time spent outdoors in nature. Although this did not surprise me, I was comforted to learn that others could also be experiencing the same feelings of relief from anxiety from being in such rich natural landscapes.

Richard Louv coined the term ‘nature-deficit disorder’ as a way to describe the effects of our societies moving away from nature (1). As the effects of urban sprawl, advances in technology, and trends of people spending greater amounts of time indoors continue to take over our world, people are suffering from more physical and mental health problems. Not only does a lack of time spent in nature have an effect on our health, but it also “weakens ecological literacy and stewardship of the natural world” (1). Richard Louv has written three books focused on the importance of time spent in nature. The first book, titled “Last Child in the Woods”, focuses on children and the effects of the decreased amount of time spent in the natural world (2). “The Nature Principle” is his second book, which uses ground-breaking research to identify the “restorative powers of nature” when it comes to physical and mental health and well-being (2). The third and most recent book is titled “Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life”, and focuses on ways both children and adults can reconnect with nature and make it part of their daily lives (2).

Looking into this phenomenon further, I found various resources pertaining to youth and the connection between nature and mental health. In a study titled “It’s about being outside”: Canadian youth’s perspectives of good health and the environment (3), qualitative research showed a general trend in the association between healthy environments and the natural environment by youth who participated in the study (3). Not only this, but they “reported feelings of comfort, well-being, and psychological ease, encompassing relaxation and inner peace” when engaging in nature (3).

I was curious whether there was anything being done to help children experience nature from a young age, and someone I know pointed me towards some information about Canadian Forest and Nature Schools. The Child and Nature Alliance of Canada created an initiative in 2012 called Forest School Canada (4). The introductory package contains information pertaining to this approach to education dating back to the 1950s, the flexibility of the program in terms of scheduling outdoor activities either full time or part time, and the connections of the teaching principles to Aboriginal traditional knowledge. There is overlap in the program’s principles with Canadian Aboriginal ideas that “the balanced person is composed of an emotional, physical, spiritual and intellectual self,” as well as “the Seven Grandfather Teachings… honesty, humility, respect, bravery, wisdom, truth, and love” (4).

Important connections are drawn between the decline in time playing outdoors and the drastic increase in time children spend in front of an electronic screen (30 minutes as opposed to 7 hours each day respectively according to the National Wildlife Federation), as well as the increase in prescriptions for mental health problems in youth (4). There is an emphasis on the fact that these researchers understand the complexity of mental health issues, but firmly believe this change in play time activities is a major contributing factor. Through multiple studies, evidence indicated that interaction with natural environments in a number of ways can be helpful in “reducing stress, increasing patience, increasing self-discipline, increasing capacity for attention, increasing recovery for mental fatigue, or from crisis and from psychophysiological imbalance” (4).

Reading all of these, I felt a great sense of connection with the findings, as though the things I felt when visiting our national parks and believed to be true had a sound basis in scientific evidence. Although the sources I have mentioned were focused on youth mental health as it pertains to the environment, this does not necessarily mean the information cannot be extrapolated to my young adult life or even beyond that. As adults we may not have ‘play- time,’ but we do have choice about how we spend our leisure time.

In the summer of 2015, I was driving one night when my car was hit by a large SUV from behind. Being told by the fire and medical officials who arrived at the scene that I was lucky to be alive was an additional shock on top of the initial trauma of the collision. I am still in recovery from that collision, both physically and mentally, as it left me with increased anxiety symptoms.

Before the collision happened, I already had a trip to Banff planned later in the summer, including the typical hiking and other physical activities I enjoy. Unfortunately, due to my injuries, the hiking would have to wait for another time. However, just being within the park, breathing the fresh mountain air, and enjoying the wildlife was settling and healing. Every time I have returned to the Rocky Mountains since, I have observed that the anxious feelings melt away when I am surrounded by the natural environment – almost as though time becomes secondary to the landscape being explored, and allows for decompression from our very busy, non-stop daily schedules. It may not heal me physically, but my visits to the parks have been a saving grace for my mental health and well-being.

CPAWS actively lobbies for new protected areas and advocates for the continued protection of already protected areas (5). In order to ensure the preservation of natural wonders across Canada, CPAWS aims to keep governments accountable for the laws that constitute appropriate and inappropriate development and use of protected lands. Currently, CPAWS Northern Alberta has a continued effort in the ongoing “Stand Up for Jasper” campaign to stop further commercial development within the national park, and has made submissions to the Alberta government regarding new proposed areas for protection (5). As a non-profit organization, CPAWS as a whole operates in multiple chapters across Canada, advocating for protection of ecologically important public lands and educating Canadians on the importance of reconnecting with nature.

Resources:

1. Children and Nature Network. (2016). Nature Deficit Disorder. Retrieved from https://www.childrenandnature.org/about/nature-deficit-disorder/
2. Louv, Richard. (2016). Books by Richard Louv. Retrieved from http://richardlouv.com/books/
3. Woodgate, R. L., Skarlato, O., (2015). “It is about being outside”: Canadian youth’s perspectives of good health and the environment. Retrieved from http://www.childrenandnature.org/research/it-is-about-being-outside-canadian-youths-perspectives-of-good-health-and-the-environment/
4. Andrachuk, H., Edgar, T., Eperjesi, P., Filler, C., Groves, J., Kaknevicius, J., Lahtinen, R., Mason, J., Molyneux, L., Morcom, L., Petrini, G., Piersol, L., Power, M., Young, J. (2014). Forest and Nature School in Canada: A Head, Heart, Hands Approach to Outdoor Learning. Retrieved from http://www.forestschoolcanada.ca/wp-content/themes/wlf/images/FSC-Guide_web.pdf
5. Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society Northern Alberta. (2016). Parks and Protected Areas. Retrieved from http://cpawsnab.org/campaigns/parks-and-protected-areas

All photographs taken by Kristen Langeste with the exception of the last photograph, which was taken by Zoltan Havas