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U-M, Sierra Club to study links between outdoor experience, veterans’ mental health

  • Contact Kevin Merrill, Phone: (734) 417-7392, E-mail: merrillk@umich.edu

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—For six years, the Sierra Club has organized outdoor trips for U.S. military service members, veterans and their families. Now, the national environmental group is working with the University of Michigan on a research project to measure how those trips affect veterans' mental health.

U-M researchers at the School of Natural Resources and Environment will analyze the results of surveys given to about 120 veterans before and after upcoming six-day excursions. While scientific research increasingly shows a strong link between mental health benefits and the natural environment, the Sierra Club wanted to know if its programs, which are offered for free or at reduced costs, were producing the same results.

"The Sierra Club has been organizing outings with military families and veterans for years, and we know anecdotally from participants that outdoor experiences have been vital to their reintegration," said Stacy Bare, national military families and veterans' representative for the Sierra Club. "Securing quantitative data that reinforces these beliefs will support our efforts to make these types of experiences available on a larger scale."

Coordinating the research work at SNRE are Rachel Kaplan, the Samuel Trask Dana Professor of Environment and Behavior, and research scientist Jason Duvall.

"The overall objective of this research is to explore whether contact with the natural environment is associated with improvements to mental health and psychological functioning of veterans," Kaplan said.

The project will take about 18 months to complete. It started last fall when the surveys were written and tested. The veterans' excursions begin in March.

The Sierra Club chose four partner organizations to execute quality outdoor experiences: Higher Ground (Sun Valley, Idaho); Wasatch Adaptive Sports (Snowbird, Utah); Wilderness Inquiry (Minneapolis); and Women's Wilderness Institute (Boulder, Colo.). Each outing will provide at least four days of an outside experience. Some programs are free, while others require the participant to cover transportation and up to $100 for tuition.

The excursions range from fly fishing, kayaking and whitewater rafting to backpacking and paddling. There are two courses specifically for female veterans, and one for military spouses, partners or caregivers. For information, visit http://sierraclub.org/military/outings.aspx.

"By now the empirical literature is substantial with numerous studies documenting the diversity of health and well-being benefits related to the nearby natural environment," Kaplan said. "Studies examining the impact of wilderness experiences have suggested that more extended nature experiences can also offer important benefits. Given these potential benefits, exposure to natural environments and outdoor recreation may be particularly helpful to military veterans and active duty personnel, since studies indicate that these individuals are more likely to experience serious mental health issues, such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder."

The Sierra Club and its partner organizations will collect and maintain the data and administer the surveys. This process is designed to assure that U-M researchers cannot identify the participants. Participants will be asked to complete a survey about one week prior to the recreation experience. Short-term changes in psychological health, social health and coping/problem-solving abilities will be assessed by asking participants to complete a survey a week after the experience.

To assess whether changes were sustained, a second post-test will be given three to four weeks after the excursion. The pre-test, initial post-test and second post-test will be administered using an online survey tool.

"How durable are any changes? Does the kind of program matter? Is the composition of the group important? Does the benefit of an outdoor program relate to the veterans' military experiences?" Kaplan asked. "We expect this research to be a useful step in exploring such questions."

 

About Military Family and Veterans Initiative
Sierra Club's Military Family and Veterans Initiative, formerly Military Families Outdoors is part of Mission Outdoors, the Sierra Club's campaign to provide access to outdoor experiences to people of all ages and backgrounds. MFVI makes available a variety of opportunities for American military service members, veterans and their families to experience the freedom of the land they defend. See www.sierraclub.org/military

About the U-M School of Natural Resources and Environment
The School of Natural Resources and Environment's overarching objective is to contribute to the protection of the Earth's resources and the achievement of a sustainable society. Through research, teaching and outreach, faculty, staff and students are devoted to generating knowledge and developing policies, techniques and skills to help practitioners manage and conserve natural and environmental resources to meet the full range of human needs on a sustainable basis. See www.snre.umich.edu