Universities must integrate more outdoor time and space to boost students’ mental health

Universities must integrate more outdoor time and space to boost students' mental health
Universities should turn to green spaces and time spent in nature to combat the rise of psychological illness in the global student population. Source: Fidel Fernando/Unsplash

It’s no secret that mental illness has become a global pandemic, with a growing number of students affected by issues such as depression, anxiety and other stress-related disorders.

University is a trying time, filled with worries about leaving home and fending for yourself in a new place, with the added pressure of passing exams and getting good grades – not to mention the financial pressures of paying for higher education. All these factors can take their toll on student well-being.

Research by The Progressive Policy Think Tank has found that over the past 10 years, there has been a fivefold increase in the number of students admitting to their university that they are suffering from a mental health condition. Meanwhile, The Guardian found that the number of students seeking counselling at university rocketed by 50 percent between 2011 and 2016.

The University of Bristol provides a bleak and very real example that the issue continues to rise. In the last two years alone, eleven students have died, three in quick succession during exam season last summer, a number of which have been confirmed as suicide.

With this unprecedented and tragic increase in not only mental health issues, but suicide, different coping mechanisms are cropping up at universities worldwide.

From increased counselling services to Wellness Circles and Canine Therapy, universities are using both traditional and more novel techniques to help students battle the black dog and prevent further mental health issues.

During Mental Health Awareness Week last year, a number of British landmarks – including The University of Stirling’s Cottrell Building, Edinburgh Castle and the Bank of England -were illuminated green between 9pm and midnight, with social posts being shared with the hashtag #EndTheStigma to raise awareness of the issue.

But green lights are in no way a solution. Rather, universities should turn to green spaces and time spent outdoors in nature to combat the rise of psychological illness prevailing at universities worldwide.

A study published in April 2018, which involved 95,000 participants across 10 UK cities, demonstrates that spending more time in green spaces is key to improving well-being. The study unearthed “a protective effect of greenness on depression”, which demonstrated that people living in leafier communities were four percent less likely to suffer from a major depressive disorder.

Universities are often located in cities, close to academic history and urban industry with little to no access to green space. For this reason, higher education providers must use funding to design more green spaces on-campus and factor more outdoor time into students’ schedules.

A literature review for The Wildlife Trusts by the University of Essex discusses a large body of evidence which suggests that contact with a range of natural environments, in a number of different contexts, can provide benefits for physical health through heightened rates of physical activity, but also promotes improvements to psychological and social well-being.

The review demonstrates that these benefits to well-being, including reductions in stress and anxiety, increased positivity, self-esteem and resilience, and improvements in social functioning and social inclusion can be accessed not only through contact with nature and participation in nature-based activities, but also through simply viewing natural scenes.

There are plenty of opportunities for those who have an existing love of the outdoors to integrate outdoor activities into the student experience, such as through clubs and societies. Even those who don’t realise it’s beneficial effects would profit from structured, outdoor experiences at university and greener campus spaces.

One study in Japan, where shrinrin-yoku – ‘forest bathing’ has been part of the national public health programme since 1982, found that students who spent two nights in the forest came back with lower levels of cortisol (a hormone often used as a marker for stress) than those who spent that time in a city.

Meanwhile, a study by The American Society for Horticulture Science indicated that, in general, students who used the campus green spaces more frequently perceived their quality of life as higher compared to those who used green spaces less frequently.

Of course, universities in warmer climes have an advantage when it comes to scheduling outdoor learning. Bond University in Australia makes the most of its beautiful campus and mild, coastal weather that helps them incorporate outdoor learning into the student experience, with a positive effect.

Bond continues to actively work on future plans for creative outdoor teaching spaces they have been shown to measurably improve the personal and social aspect of students’ learning, as well as academic achievement.

But these opportunities are not just reserved for sunnier locations. The University of Derby has proven that outdoor study spaces can be beneficial in slightly greyer locations, too.

In 2016, the university opened the first ever outdoor learning space in the region to provide an alternative study environment for students. Dr Ruth Ayres, Dean of Learning Enhancement, who also leads the University’s Future Learning Spaces Group and has a background in Botany, said:

“The space is split into two distinct areas – one with purple and silver plants to evoke a sense of calm reflection and provide an area for quiet study; and the other with vibrant red and orange plants to spark creativity and lively group discussion.”

Source: universitybusiness.co.uk

Even the NHS is catching on, introducing “green prescriptions” as a means to get people moving and support both physical and mental well-being.

In 2016, a report undertaken by Natural England and mental health charity Mind focused on three main green care initiatives (care farming, environmental conservation and therapeutic horticulture) to help support people struggling with mental health issues.

It’s crucial that other universities soon follow suit, using funding to create more green spaces. Integrating outdoor learning into curricula and encouraging students to spend more time in nature has the potential for a global boost in student health and mental well-being.

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