We know nature is healing, but why? The Nature and Human Health-Utah Group (NHH-UT) is focused on answering that question, and brings together a collaborative team of scholars, educators, practitioners and community members. Led by the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism interim chair Dart Schmalz, PhD, the group recently awarded pilot grants of $10,000 to four separate teams to investigate the benefits of nature on physical, emotional and mental health.
In Spring 2022, NHH-UT solicited proposals from interdisciplinary, cross-sectoral teams. Three of the funded projects are helmed by professors at the University of Utah, and the fourth is led by the research program manager at the VA Salt Lake City Health Care System. The projects not only study the benefits of nature, but also examine how issues of racial and social justice impact access to those benefits:
- “The Effects of Nature-Immersive Experiences on Social, Mental, and Physical Health in Adults with Mental Illness or Symptoms of Mental Illness.” Joanna Bettman-Schaefer, PhD, is the principal investigator and a professor in the University’s College of Social Work. She is coordinating an extensive scoping review of the existing literature on how nature interventions affect health among people with mental illness, and to identify dosages regarding time and type of nature exposure on health outcomes.
- “Homelessness, Health, and Nature: A Community-Based Research Partnership.” Jeff Rose, PhD, is the principal investigator and an assistant professor in the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism. He and his team are collaborating with the Tracy Aviary’s Jordan River Nature Center to better understand how nature-based experiences contribute to measures of health and wellbeing for people experiencing homelessness (PEH), and to determine what skills and techniques support better engagement with PEH communities.
- “Nature Rx Pilot: Identifying barriers and facilitators to implementing nature-based mental health interventions for older adults.” Andy Hong, PhD, is the principal investigator and assistant professor in the University’s College of Architecture and Planning. His project focuses on older adults’ unique challenges and needs when designing nature-based mental health interventions. Specific aims of the project are to develop and pilot test a nature-based prescription program focused on improving the mental health of older adults, to identify barriers and facilitators to implementing the pilot program, and to create an implementation plan and guidelines for integrating nature-based interventions into health care systems.
- “A randomized control pilot study of nature immersion for veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder.” Tracy Hermann, PhD, is the principal investigator and the research program manager for Whole Health Service through the VA Salt Lake City Health Care System. Her study is designed to help meet the critical and growing mental health care needs of veterans with PTSD, which are at the forefront of public health concern. To respond to this critical need, her team developed a novel group intervention to be delivered “outside clinic walls” in a nature-based setting. The aims of this pilot project are to test the feasibility and safety of utilizing a manualized nature immersion (Nature CALM) intervention, evaluate the short-term impact of the intervention on PTSD, depressive symptoms, restoration, and quality of life, and to determine if Nature CALM will have sustained effects on veterans’ PTSD, depression symptoms, restoration, and quality of life.
NHH-UT’s leaders were inspired by a similar program at the University of Washington, producing innovative research on the benefits of nature. As a hub of outdoor recreation and activity, Utah is uniquely positioned to serve as a launchpad for further collaboration in research. Tim Brown, the president and CEO of Tracy Aviary, and Nalini Nadkarni, professor emerita in the University’s Department of Biological Sciences, join Schmalz in leading the group.
For those interested in learning more about the work that NHH-UT is planning, the group will hold a meeting on Oct. 18 from 6-8 pm. To get more information, visit the group’s website: https://natureandhealthutah.org/.
By Sarah Shebek