Welcome to our new section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus.) We welcome faculty, clinicians and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.
Growing up in New York City, it was rare to escape the vibrant, stimulating flow of people and machines and lights that invaded my senses daily. Who could forget the jarring experience of waking up to car horns and screaming matches, smelling the garbage trucks picking up their loads for the day, and maneuvering through bodies on the sidewalk—all before starting a day of elementary school? Of course, not having been exposed to anything else, I was used to this process. I also got used to living with a constant feeling of restlessness, unease, and anxiety. Despite living in arguably the most exciting city in the world, I was unable to fully enjoy my surroundings and myself.
Everyone told me transitions to new places were difficult, and I was expecting to feel even more unease and anxiety when I moved out of my parent’s house nearly two thousand miles away to Colorado College, a small, liberal arts school at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. But from the minute I stepped foot on campus I felt a sense of comfort and ease I had rarely felt before, except when I was on a canoe trip in Maine one summer, or when my uncle took me camping in the woods of Northern Ontario.
Even though the work was demanding, and the high academic standards of my classes occasionally made me nervous, I found that this sense of ease stayed with me. It was easier to relax, to take a step back from everything going on and be more thoughtful about my experiences. I wondered if this feeling was because of my proximity to nature but I wasn’t sure, though looking at the incredible outline of Pikes Peak every day certainly made me feel happy. I began asking my friends to see what they thought, and I received a similar sentiment from them. One said, “The ability to go outside so often is a big factor of my emotional health, being in the mountains is how I get my mental break from classes and life in general.”
I felt even better on Block Breaks. Instead of a regular semester system, Colorado College operates on the Block Plan, where students take one class (or block) at a time for three and a half weeks followed by a four day Block Break, which is essentially a vacation where they can go on personal trips before beginning a new block. I tended to spend my Block Breaks outdoors with hiking, camping, rock climbing, or skiing in the winter. Of course this time was very rejuvenating, and I felt recharged and ready to work afterwards. Discussing Block Breaks with my psychology professor she said she noticed the same enhanced sense of well being in her students when they came back from Block Break as well. This professor also happens to be from Northern Europe and she told me about Finland, where they are known for their consistently high academic and social ratings, and how from elementary school through high school students are required between each class to take ten minutes to go outside and move their bodies, even in the freezing Finnish winters. I can’t help but think that this time outdoors is contributing to how these students operate in school and interact with each other.
The extreme and consistent access to the outdoors greatly enhanced my time at Colorado College. I finally felt more present and less anxious than in the city I grew up in. Yet, more and more people are finding themselves like I was in New York, without the release of a place like Colorado College. We are rapidly becoming an urbanized culture (in 2008 it became official that more people were living in urban environments than rural ones), and are therefore causing more damage to our mental health than we realize. I hope that we as a society continue to gain a better understanding of how being in nature affects our sense of well being, and that we expose more city dwellers to the therapeutic effects of the outdoors, like I was fortunate to do in college.
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