By Brian Thompson
A little over a year ago, I went on a camping trip with my family. This trip was particularly important to me because I was able to bond with my father while hiking. We had long conversations; he taught me how to throw knives. Most importantly on this trip, I got to see him relax and freed from mundane life.
My dad has post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, which has greatly affected his life and makes every day more stressful for him – and us. Fortunately, nature has been a very helpful way to decompress. With PTSD a form of a mental illness, it is important that folks like my father seek support.
Mental illness can cripple individuals, and it raises its ugly head worldwide. In 2019 on the Our World In Data, the U.S. ranked 14 on a chart of mental disorder rates in the world at an estimated 16.93%. In an article on mental health, the National Institute of Mental Health spoke on the prevalence of mental illness in the U.S.: “Nearly one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness (52.9 million in 2020).” In addition, it further stated that “this number represented 21.0% of all U.S. adults.”
Nature and ecotherapy aren’t just helpful for dealing with PTSD. It has been proven to help improve your overall health, but what it most affects is your mental health. Mental illness is defined by the Mayo Clinic as “disorders that affect your mood, thinking and behavior.”
Washington state has some of the highest mental illness numbers in the country, and Spokane along with it. But, one thing that Washington has done, and Spokane especially, is the development of green space. In an interview, Spokane City Council member Jonathan Bingle stated that Spokane spends 8% of its budget on parks. The importance of this is due to a concept called ecotherapy.
Ecotherapy consists of two environment types. Green space refers to healthy, land-based, nature environments such as woods, grass fields, and marsh. Blue space refers to water-based environments such as beaches, lakes, and rivers.
The idea behind ecotherapy is the belief that just the action of spending time in nature is beneficial and can reduce depression as well as stress.
In a study by psychologist Dr. Terry A. Hartig, participants were asked to complete a symbol-substitution test before taking each of two 40-minute walks with a couple randomly chosen options, times (pre- or post-walk), environments (park, street), and social contexts (with a friend or alone). The result of this study shows “some psychological benefits of a brisk walk depend on the influence of the immediate social context and features of the outdoor urban environment, including natural features such as greenery and water.”
Ecotherapy has also been proven to have positive long-lasting effects on children. A 2019 research article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America on the effects of residential green space during childhood and its association with lower risks of psychiatric disorders from adolescence to adulthood concluded “children who grew up with the lowest levels of green space had up to 55% higher risk of developing a psychiatric disorder independent from effects of other known risk factors.”
Youth today are already in recovery from the aftermath of the pandemic. Thus, the importance of children having access to nature will greatly decrease the chances of a disorder and increase the opportunity to enjoy life.
In another study, Dr. Frances Kuo and Dr. Andrea Taylor discovered, “Green outdoor settings appear to reduce ADHD symptoms in children across a wide range of individual, residential, and case characteristics.” I believe Spokane’s incorporation of green space in its development is important and should be mimicked throughout the nation.
Unlike traditional methods that have been known to cause unfavorable side effects such as addiction and even the unwanted altering of one’s body chemistry, ecotherapy provides alternative treatment for not only my father and his own mental health concerns but also for others struggling with similar life challenges, which is good news.