SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (ABC4 Utah) It’s no secret that many people receive a mental boost when they spend time outside, whether they’re rafting down a river, hiking through Zion National Park, or even just visiting a local green space. But what’s the science behind this phenomenon? And could it be used to helped Armed Forces veterans and their families?
University of Utah researchers received a $750,000 grant from the Kendeda Fund to study the restorative, health-promoting benefits of the great outdoors on veterans and their families.
“We know it happens, but we don’t understand how it happens or the dosage necessary to really make a positive change,” said Kelly Bricker, Ph.D., chair of Parks, Recreation and Tourism (PRT) in the College of Health and one of the study’s lead investigators. “There are a lot of programs around the country today that are focused on getting veterans outside. We haven’t done enough research to understand many aspects of why it works. What is it about being outdoors that promotes resiliency, builds coping skills and eases mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder?”
To find out, researchers will do much of their work in outdoor “laboratories” in partnership with not-for-profit organizations that offer nature-based outings, such as O.A.R.S., Veterans Expeditions, Project Sanctuary, Warriors on Cataract and Project Healing Waters.
“We want to examine the prospect of nature’s healing powers across activities and across settings to determine if certain situations yield better results than others,” said Daniel Dustin, Ph.D., a lead investigator and a professor in PRT. He noted that the research will likely incorporate river running, mountain climbing, hiking, camping and sightseeing.
“Our challenge is to produce defensible science,” said Dustin, who teams up with co-lead investigators Bricker and Matt Brownlee, Ph.D. in PRT; Kevin Rathunde, Ph.D., Family and Consumer Studies; and Craig Bryan, Psy.D., executive director of the University’s National Center for Veteran Studies. The project supports the University’s participation in the global Healthy Parks Healthy People movement, which was established in the U.S. by the National Park Service in 2011 to “reframe the role of parks and public lands as an emerging, powerful health prevention strategy,” according to the National Park Service.
In addition to studying nature’s impact on mental health, researchers will seek to answer questions, such as “How might nature-based experiences improve veterans’ marital relationships and overall family functioning?” and “What barriers exist that prevent mental health benefits from being realized by veterans and their families, and what can be done to remove them?”
This research will be conducted over the next three years.