Calming the Storm
By Laura Allen, Courtney Crim, Jonathan King, Ellen Barnett & Benjamin Sosnaud from Trinity University in San Antonio of Texas
Research | This edition’s research piece was contributed by some esteemed colleagues at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. Their exciting work explores the use of natural environments to help university students with college-related stress and anxiety. The results will be included in our next newsletter or when available
Concerns about college students’ mental health have grown in the last decade. Reports from the Center for Collegiate Mental Health and the Healthy Minds Study indicate significant increases in percentages of college students treated for psychological problems, with anxiety (61%), depression (49%), and stress (43%) topping the list. Mental health disorders can put students at greater risk of dropping out, contribute to lower grade-point averages, actuate co-occurring substance abuse, and increase suicidality.
The current COVID-19 crisis adds to the challenge. College students are grappling with sudden moves home, shifts to online learning, financial instability, social isolation, and even illness and death. Given that emerging adulthood (ages 18-25) is prime for the onset of mental health disorders, identifying avenues for supporting this population is more critical now than ever.
An interdisciplinary research team at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, has been using the benefits of natural environments to promote student well-being for the past two years. When the university closed campus and moved to online learning March 23, the team realized an opportunity to support students and created a four-week project called “Get Outside With Us.” Faculty agreed to incorporate it into three classes as a mandatory assignment. Students were asked to spend a minimum of 90 minutes outside each week sitting, walking, hiking, running, or biking around as much in nature as possible. They kept an outdoor reflection journal and completed the Reflection Rumination Questionnaire (RRQ) and Profile of Mood States (POMS) measures before, during, and after the experience. Students also completed an intake questionnaire to identify variables such as the level of change experienced since the closure, typical time normally spent outside, and access permitted to the outdoors given government shelter-in-place orders.
At the time of this writing, students are two weeks into the project. Here is what we have seen so far.
- Initial RRQ and POMS data indicate students’ levels of rumination and negative mood states are higher than in past semesters.
- Students have widely varying access to the outdoors, from not being able to leave their houses to abundant rural space. Most have access to their own yards and neighborhoods.
- Some find the assignment helpful and are realizing the benefits of being outside, while others view it as time better used toward heavy homework loads. An excerpt from the Week One Journal of a student living on a beach in Oregon, USA follows:
‘I love looking around at the glassy sand, but I am also loving listening to the waves crash gently on the shore and spreading the water out… My thoughts changed a lot over the course of this walk. At first I was thinking a lot about school and all of the assignments I have to get done and my GPA and just everything. But after a bit those started to melt away, and I was just looking around and wandering. My thoughts drifted to unimportant things which was really nice… I think after this walk it was a very obvious mood change for me. The breath of fresh air really cleared my mind and I felt a lot more productive. Before I was feeling really overwhelmed with all the stuff I had to do this week, but now I am feeling like I can take it one thing at a time and be okay.’
The future is more uncertain than ever; however, the power of nature to calm and center us can support the mental health of our students as well as ourselves.
We, at the EEAI, are very much looking forward to learning the results of this research and will publish it in the next newsletter or when available.