In honor of Earth Day, this article will discuss 5 ways that Nature impacts student mental health. Just being in nature can improve mental health, and schools can incorporate new ways to make ecotherapy more accessible to students. Yoga, forest bathing, having class outside, and outdoor meditation events are just a few easy ways to connect students to their environment and mental health. NAMI Research suggests that spending more time outside and practicing ecotherapy lifts mental health struggles like stress, anxiety and depression. Being in nature boosts ‘feel good’ hormones in the brain, reducing stress and increasing creativity from the inside out.
Hosting Class Outside
A practice as simple as finding beauty in the everyday is important to mental wellness because it brings a sense of awe and hope to life. Nature is free flowing and beautiful, acting as a method to access feelings of awe and hope. For instance, according to NAMI, “exposure to nature can reduce blood pressure, muscle tension and stress hormones. Studies show it can also make you feel more creative and alive.” Engaging with nature nourishes our wellbeing by brightening our spirits, leading to improved mental and physical health. Appreciating nature is simple, but often students need a reminder to be mindful of it to experience its benefits. School staff can host classes outside to foster a flow of ideas and creativity. Research shows that when students are outside, they are less stressed and can think from a place of imagination instead of feeling bored or stifled by the classroom environment. Here, we can see that outdoor classes engage students with positive thoughts and feelings, speaking to their creative sides, which is essential to mental wellbeing.
If schools host outdoor meditations, it can enhance mindful thoughts and feelings in and out of the classroom. Outdoor meditation is an ecotherapy that benefits the mind, body, and environment; helping students and the environment achieve greater wellbeing. If schools incorporate events like outdoor meditation into extracurricular programs, students might be more inclined to pick up a meditation practice and/or practice eco-conscious behaviors. NAMI research shows that the biodiverse elements of nature have specific positive benefits for mental well-being. Elements that engage the senses such as bird or cricket sounds and the scent of flowers have beneficial effects on mental health, including increasing feelings of calm and creativity.
Similarly, forest therapy is another mindful practice in nature that helps improve student mental health. Forest therapy is basically meditation in a lush forest environment, connecting students to the natural world and a mind-body-environment union. According to the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy, it is a “relational practice that brings people into deeper intimacy with natural places.” In engaging with the idea that one's own physical body is a natural place, forest therapy blurs the boundaries of ourselves and nature, creating feelings of a sense of union with the natural world. Humans want to protect the things that they care about and can relate to, suggesting that incorporating activities that create an appreciation and connection with nature in school can help motivate students to protect it. Offering field trip opportunities for forest bathing is a great way to improve mental health and spark eco-conscious behaviors amongst the student body.
In the same vein, outdoor yoga is another form of ecotherapy that works to improve student mental health. Outdoor yoga slows down physical movement to connect people to their physical body and its sensations, raising awareness of the mind-body-environment interaction. Being fully present with the sensations and feelings of the moment increases an appreciation for the environment and oneself as well as an awareness of how we impact the earth. Moving our bodies with the flow of the air around us and tuning into nature sounds connect us to the present, cultivating a calm awareness. Outdoor yoga is a great strategy to introduce students to ecotherapy, as it leads with the body to connect oneself to their mind and environment. Most students often find yoga as a great way to release stress from their days sitting in a classroom, as it creates blood flow to the brain and brings attention to the senses. Incorporating yoga outside into school curriculum should enhance mindful thoughts and feelings as well as a connection to the environment, improving student mental health.
Nature can improve mental health by reducing general anxiety and depression symptoms. Eco-anxiety is another form of anxiety that can be aided by nature. Eco-anxiety is a persistent worry about the health and future of our earth and its inhabitants. Eco-anxiety can be considered a productive type of anxiety if managed well. For instance, eco-anxiety acts as a motivator to survive, pushing people towards working to heal the planet through climate change solutions.
Schools can help students manage their eco-anxiety by providing events or programs focused on increasing hopefulness about the environment and climate change. By looking at personal habits and shifting them towards becoming more environmentally friendly and sustainable, students can acknowledge their carbon footprint, and move forward with better choices for the environment.
Some strategies that can help students reduce their carbon footprint to reduce their eco-anxiety are choosing to bike or walk to school when possible to reduce carbon emissions. Schools can incentivize this: perhaps students who walk or bike to school receive points toward a school competition where students compete to gain the most environmentally friendly acts. Understanding that not all students will live close enough to school to walk or bike to class, offering other ways to practice environmental care is important for inclusivity and accessibility. Another idea is to provide information to students about community organizations focused on climate protection where they get involved with environmental policy to address climate change. If students choose to engage with community service organizations like these, perhaps they will get ‘sustainability points’ for the in-school competition as well as peace of mind that they are doing something good for the environment.
In our modern world, we are consumed with technology and virtual realities, when there is a whole world out there for us to engage with that is real and tangible. Current Western perceptions of individualism create mind-body disconnection, and interventions such as yoga, forest bathing, and meditation, in nature are great ways to connect oneself to the mind-body-environment connection that improves mental health and eco conscious behaviors. Having a deeper connection with the natural world increases depth and creativity in perception, which are key components to optimistic and mindful thinking that will help mitigate the student mental health crisis and climate change issues in our world.
If you are a school staff member looking to improve your students' and the environment's health, Neolth is a great resource to help cultivate a sense of appreciation for nature and ecotherapy behaviors. Neolth is a digital stress and mental health support program for students and educators. We’re on a mission to help you stress less, build resilience, and become a part of our compassionate community. Our app helps you when you’re feeling overwhelmed with self-guided content, personalized for your mental health journey. We recommend our "Rock Reminder" and "Walking Mindfulness" practices on the app for Earth Day & beyond. You can learn more at neolth.com or sign up today at cloud.neolth.com.