By Mario D’Agostino
PROMOTING THE POSITIVE MENTAL HEALTH OF YOUNG PEOPLE OUTDOORS
Towards the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th century, the first summer camps were set to promote physical and mental health for children and young people, mostly from urban areas. The “sanatoriums” also date back to the early 20th century. These were public clinics where one could do oxygen therapy and reinvigorate both physically and mentally.
In 1907, Robert Baden-Powell created the scout movement to promote, through outdoor group activities, the well-being of young people and environmental care through a sustainable exploration of nature. Today, the scout movement counts more than 40.000 members and is one of the world’s most important non-formal education organizations in the world. The first Outward Bound School was opened in 1941 by Kurt Hahn with the support of the Blue Funnel Line. Outward Bound’s founding mission was to improve the survival chances of young seamen after their ships were torpedoed in the mid-Atlantic. In the non-formal educational context, adventure and outdoor activities contribute in promoting the physical, emotional and mental health of young people and are particularly effective for personal and group development. In adventure therapy programs, for example, nature is used as the main setting, as it provides situations that cannot be avoided. Nature also represents an “unfamiliar setting that provides immediate feedback and creates a state of dissonance within participants. This internal cognitive-emotional dissonance can generate a transformative experience”(1), meaning that it becomes almost impossible for participants to hide their real emotions, motivating them to take action (ie find a shelter when it rains, drink when thirsty, take a rest when tired, etc). In adventure therapy programs, “perceived risk is used to heighten arousal and to create eustress (positive response to stress)”(2) and nature becomes an element that promotes inter and intrapersonal perspectives(3), interdependence and trust, vulnerability, openness and spontaneous connections(4).
THE KEY FACTORS THAT MAKE OUTDOOR ACTIVITIES EFFECTIVE TOOLS FOR PROMOTING POSITIVE MENTAL HEALTH
The effectiveness of outdoor activities depends on several factors. Among these we would like to mention the shinrin-yoku and the 3 Basic Human Drives.
Activities that take place in nature, no matter how simple they are, are beneficial. Shinrin-yoku, which literally means “forest bathing”, is a Japanese word that refers to a specific medical method very similar to aromatherapy, which was spread in the 80’s together with oxygen therapy. A series of studies(5) have shown that spending time in nature (where there are a lot of trees) boosts the immune system. A walk in the woods can be reinvigorating and/or relaxing because while breathing we inhale volatile substances, called phytoncides (wood essential oils), which are antimicrobial volatile organic compounds derived from trees, such as α-pinene and limonene. The latter contributes in increasing the level of serotonin, which is the hormone for happiness that helps decrease the levels of anger, anxiety and depression. Stress hormones can in fact compromise the immune defence, as they contribute to suppressing the activities of frontline defenders, such as antiviral natural killer cells. Since forest bathing can lower the production of stress hormones and elevate mood states, it’s not surprising that it also influences the immune system.
So, people who go for a walk in the forest and breathe deeply, have lower cortisol levels, a reduced heart rate and blood pressure, less stress and anxiety. This is why forest bathing also helps treat depression. Therefore, individual and group activities (such as outdoor experiential learning or adventure therapy) that take place in natural settings have an impact at physical as well as psychological and emotional levels.
3 Basic Human Drives
Dr Nicholas Kardaras, Chief Clinical Officer of Maui Recovery in Hawaii and Omega Recovery in Austin, Texas, claims that adventurous outdoor activities fulfil 3 basic drives/needs(6):
- The need to belong and feel connected with others and relate to them;
- The need to discover new things – Neophilia
- The need to challenge oneself and reach goals
- Outdoor group activities, run either in non-formal or informal contexts in youth work, offer an answer to these needs, promoting positive mental health, self-esteem, and connection with oneself, others and the environment.
Outdoor group activities, run either in non-formal or informal contexts in youth work, offer an answer to these needs, promoting positive mental health, self-esteem, and connection with oneself, others and the environment.
Dr Nicholas Kardaras unfortunately claims that, besides outdoors activities, video games and social networks also respond to these human drives; the latter, however, creates addiction and serious psychological distress. Outdoor and digital activities are both dopamine releasers, although in the case of virtual activities, dopamine is pumped instantly as with synthetic drugs. This creates an artificial state of well-being and addiction comparable to the one generated by the use of drugs(7). When dopamine is released in large amounts, it creates feelings of pleasure and reward. Social media provides an immediate reward in the form of attention from others for relatively minimal effort. Therefore, the brain rewires itself through this positive reinforcement, making people desire likes, retweets, and emoticon reactions. It can turn problematic when social networking sites become a coping mechanism to relieve stress, loneliness, or depression. For these people, social media use provides continuous rewards that they’re not receiving in real life and they end up engaging in this activity more and more. This continuous use leads to multiple interpersonal problems – such as ignoring real life relationships, work or school responsibilities – and physical health ones, possibly ending in undesirable moods. It’s not a coincidence that in case of digital addiction, depression or any other issue related to mental health problems, therapists often prescribe programs of adventure therapy, consisting of adventure experiences often conducted in natural settings, that kinaesthetically engage young people on cognitive, affective and behavioural levels. Adventure therapy uses the environment to elicit change by using experience and action with collaborative exercises, trust and problem solving activities, outdoors adventures and wilderness expeditions. After each activity, the group reflects and processes the experience in a group setting, where facilitators help participants internalize the experience and relate it to therapeutic goals.
Dr. D.Greenfield, Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, University of Connecticut School of Medicine and Dr. Peter Whybrow Director of Neuroscience at UCLA, calls electronic screens and video games “Electronic Cocaine”, claiming that “People are carrying around a portable dopamine pump, and kids have basically been carrying it around too for the past 10 years”.
A study published in the Journal Paediatrics by Dr. Dimitri Christakis at the university of Washington in 2010, found that children who spend more than two hours a day in front of a screen, were twice as likely to have attention problems.
In another study, Dr Nicholas Kardaras explains the reasons why the indigenous living in Amazon in small communities and in close contact with nature, show high levels of socio emotional well-being and don’t develop depression. He claims that the reasons for this phenomenon are attributed to:
- Physical activity
- Being part of a community and having a sense of family bond
- Social cohesion and sense of solidarity among people of the community
- The direct contact with nature
These are all elements that can also be found in adventure and outdoor programs promoted by various youth organizations to foster well-being and restore balance in young people who suffer from psychological distress due to excessive use of digital tools. These experiential outdoor activities that create meaningful opportunities to face real-life experiences and challenges and group and individual reflection equally contribute towards:
- Increasing resiliency, by learning how to cope with stress and negative emotions
- Improving self-awareness and self-confidence
- Developing a more positive outlook and a growth mindset
- Acquiring positive social skills, like communication and conflict resolution
- Improving the management of impulsive behaviours
- Improving concentration and focus, thus impacting on cognitive abilities and academic results
- Acquiring the ability to set realistic goals
- Encouraging and promoting a sense of responsibility
- Encouraging openness and emotional discovery, thus overcoming stigma around mental health
- Building positive relationships and learning to cooperate with others
During COVID19, digital tools have turned out to be very useful for many people to stay in contact with their friends, continue working and diminish the sense of loneliness. However, they have probably also accentuated a non-healthy lifestyle, above all among children and young people. We believe that promoting positive mental health and well-being in outdoor contexts is a valuable alternative to all the time spent in front of a screen, as outdoor activities respond in a healthy way to young people’s needs for:
- Being connected with oneself, others and nature
- Being physically active
- Being challenged and reaching objectives
- Exploring and discovering new things
PRESENCING VS ABSENSING AS A WAY TO PROMOTE POSITIVE MENTAL HEALTH
It has been largely demonstrated that excessive and non-conscious use of digital devices often causes alienation and “absensing”.
Theory-Y: Presencing Vs. Absencing
“Absensing” is a word from Otto Scharmer’s Theory U used to describe a state of disconnection from oneself, others and the environment. This state, which leads to ignorance, hate and fear, is dramatically growing, particularly among Millennials, and generating a global increase of mental and emotional illness, especially in young people. Therefore youth work should focus on contrasting the “absensing” phenomenon by promoting “presensing” to foster positive mental health. “Presensing”, which in Scharmer’s Theory U is the opposite of “absensing”, is a state of physical, emotional and cognitive presence in the here and now, in which one is in contact with one’s authentic Self and the context. Presensing, nurtured by curiosity, compassion and courage, is “the blending of sensing and presence, means to connect from the Source of the highest future possibility and to bring it into the now. When moving into the state of presencing, perception begins to happen from a future possibility that depends on us to come into reality. In that state we step into our real being, who we really are, our authentic self.”(8). Being in contact with one’s authentic Self allows one to reach a state of mental and psychological healthiness, as body and mind become harmoniously aligned. Outdoor activities help young people in being in the present moment and in connecting with their true Self, thus strongly contributing to promote positive mental health.
ON THE IMPORTANCE OF RECONNECTING FOR NURTURING POSITIVE MENTAL HEALTH
Today more than ever it’s of vital importance to reconnect with oneself and bring one’s human nature to be harmoniously connected to the natural cosmic cycles.
At the beginning of 20th century Rudolf Steiner, founder of the anthroposophical spiritual and philosophical movement and the Waldorf school, was already claiming that individual, social and spiritual well-being were deeply linked to the natural cycles of the earth and that the direct exploration of nature and its phenomenon were of vital importance for human beings to flourish, become well-grounded and balanced, be able to cope with the challenges of life(9). Steiner supported manual, tactile and sensorial activities done in nature, promoting experience and learning by trial and error. For Steiner, the function of education was to develop a strong motivation (will) for learning, in all its facets, rather than accumulating knowledge. The anthroposophical approach looks at children from a holistic perspective, giving equal attention to the physical, emotional, intellectual, cultural and spiritual needs of each pupil, and is designed to work in harmony with the different phases of the child’s development. Moments of boredom are valued as generative spaces, where children and young people’s will and creativity allow them to take action to solve problems, learn and grow.
Outdoor activities also tackle all of what Gardner defines as multiple intelligences and stimulate problem-solving capacities, enhancing self-confidence in young people, with the result of being highly empowering. On the contrary, using electronic devices to solve daily challenges – such as reaching a destination, memorizing phone numbers, remembering meetings, spelling words correctly – inhibits the multiple intelligence potential, affects our neural connections by stressing “absensing” states and distressing personal capacities.
To conclude, we’re convinced that in this new digital era, in order to promote positive mental health we need to foster outdoor group activities that tap into all the intelligences for problem solving and respond to the three basic human drives of belonging, being challenged and discovering new things through adventure.
All these elements contribute to addressing many of the social and emotional skills of the domains highlighted in the theoretical framework for promoting young people’s positive mental health, developed by the NUIG University of Galway and the project partners.(10)
These experiential learning outdoor activities allow young people to develop self-awareness and have an impact on their cognitive (how I think), emotional (how I feel) and social skills (how I relate to others). They also have a positive impact on young people’s mindset, their sense of identity and their values.
Being in natural settings is beneficial in itself, as young people gain a wholesome sensory awareness. When they spend time outdoors, they become more mindful of what they see, hear, smell and feel. Being in nature enhances young people’s feeling of being more grateful and appreciative of what nature has to offer as well as fostering the urge to protect it.
(1) Rakar-SzaboN, Fleischer C, Van Hoof L, Sbarra S, Yr Erlendsdóttir H., Rose A., Nolle W, Adventure Therapy with Youth at Risk. publication of the Erasmus+ KA2 funded project Reaching Furter
(2) Bowen, D. J., & Neill, J. T. (2013). A meta-analysis of adventure therapy outcomes and moderators. The Open Psychology Journal, 6, 28-53.
(3) Gass, M. (1993). Adventure therapy: Therapeutic applications of adventure programming. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Publishing.
(4) Kaplan, S. & Talbot, J.F. (1983). Psychological benefits of a wilderness experience. In: Behavior and the natural environment. Springer US
(6) Dr Nicholas Kardaras (2016) Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction Is Hijacking Our Kids — And How to Break the Trance.St. Martin’s Press
(8) Scharmer Otto (2016) Theory U: leading from the future as it emerges. Berrett-Koehler Publishers. San Francisco.
(9) Steiner R. What is Waldorf education? Three lectures by Rudolf Steiner. SteinerBooks
(10) Kuosmanen, T., Dowling, K. and Barry,M.M., (2020) Framework for Promoting Positive Mental Health and Wellbeing in the European Youth Sector