Outside T-birds are Mentally Healthy T-birds

Peers and professors at SUU have deep, abiding connections to the outdoors. As the “University of the Parks,” the school naturally beckons lovers of the outdoors in all its facets.

Students and faculty/staff members have contributed their reflections on how outdoor recreation has helped them cope with stress, learning and psychiatric disorders, depression and anxiety.

In a recent outdoors seminar, Assistant Director of SUU Outdoors Keith Howells discussed the capacity of the outdoors to change people’s lives.

Danny Strand, Crew Manager and Youth Coordinator for the Intergovernmental Internship Cooperative, found his calling in the outdoors when his first rafting trip made him realize he needed to change his life’s direction.

Instructor of Outdoor Recreation Kevin Koontz wrote on the T-Bird Nation Blog about how exposure to nature promotes longer, more frequent exercise, increases brain function, reduces stress, encourages social interaction, and promotes greater happiness.

Southern Utah’s vast, unique landscape makes it a hub for outdoor therapy programs such as RedCliffs Ascent, Discovery Ranch and WinGate Wilderness Therapy.

These programs attribute wilderness therapy and outdoor exposure as credible roads to recovery for depression, academic failure or various forms of anxiety and other mental health issues.

All these examples demonstrate how powerful outdoor recreation’s impact is on people’s attitudes, behaviors, perspectives and overall mental health.

Those impacts are continually recognized within SUU’s community today.

Jake Manning, Assistant Professor of Outdoor Recreation in Parks and Tourism, referred to the works of Richard Louv, a journalist and proponent of outdoor exposure. 

Louv has written several books about healing and healthy living through involvement and introduced a concept known as nature-deficit disorder, or a disconnect between people and nature.

There are many distractions, not all inherently bad, that can disconnect people from nature. From careers, education, and parenting to grief, depression, and anxiety, these distractions can keep people from the benefits of outdoor recreation.

Overcoming this disconnect is largely beneficial to mental health, as spending time in the outdoors has helped many people at SUU find comfort and courage to face their day-to-day challenges.

For Izak Heaton, a junior ORPT major, the outdoors helps with his ADHD.

“I find that when I go outside, near a stream or up in the mountains, it helps me calm down and slow my thinking process [where] I would otherwise have to take medication to get to that point,” Heaton said.

Demonstrating the ability of the outdoors to assist those with learning disabilities, Heaton is able to find sufficient treatment just by spending time outside.

Megan Breneman, a senior ORPT major, finds simple relief from the burden of homework, tests and deadlines that are required of her. 

“In my experience, I feel that the outdoors impacts mental health stress-wise with me,” said Breneman. “Going outside, I feel free, so all the stresses I take with me from school and such I can let go.” 

Breneman mentioned that even her family has benefited from her suggestions to get outside during stressful situations.

Students of outdoor recreation like Heaton and Breneman already have an increased drive to be outside. However, studying the outdoors isn’t required to reap the benefits of it.

A quick glance at Kenzie Ostler’s life in the past few years includes constant outdoor adventures. Ostler, a junior in SUU’s nursing program, has found a passion for the outdoors. 

“I love hikes,” Ostler said. “They help me focus and clear my head. I feel like whenever I get stressed or anxious, I can go on a hike and it can be very therapeutic.”

Hiking was also responsible for helping Assistant Director Howells emerge from a stage of severe depression, giving further validity to his statement about the outdoors changing lives.

Despite landing a new job, buying a dream house, and welcoming a newborn daughter into his life, these inspiring events had no effect on Keith Howells’ deteriorating spirit several years ago.

At the time, Howells was spiraling into depression that nothing seemed to alleviate, even losing interest in his career and other hobbies in the outdoors that he normally enjoyed.

His wife finally got him to go on a hike with her, though initially it was relatively short. The hour in the woods with the gentle sound of a babbling creek cleared Howells’ head enough to make him realize something was not right.

Slowly but surely, consistent time spent outside hiking coupled with professional therapy helped Howells get back on track to a positive and grateful mindset.

Howells, whose current job at SUU Outdoors is associated with the Health and Wellness Center, advocates strongly for spending intentional time in nature.

Spending just 30 minutes outside has shown to increase attention and decision making, improve blood pressure, work out muscles, increase energy, balance weight, and relieve depression and anxiety.

In fact, the Health and Wellness Center, located in room 175 in the Sharwan Smith Student Center, hosts Wellness Walks with SUU Outdoors Mondays at 1 p.m. as an opportunity to get outside for those crucial 30 minutes.

Examples like these point to the necessity of the outdoors as a resource for healthy, happy living, and SUU is situated perfectly to achieve that.

Story by: Reyce Knutson
Photos by: Andrew Hugentobler, Christopher Dimond, and Eberhard Grossgasteiger on Unsplash