Wallace J. Nichols and Natalie Spear
The First Lady of the United States, Melania Trump, connected deeply rooted traditions with modern science earlier this month, stating nature “can be instrumental to enhancing the health and well-being of all children”.
This sentiment echoes Mrs. Trump’s dedication to maintaining the White House Gardens as she believes "gardening teaches us the fundamentals in care and the evolution of living things, all while inspiring us to nurture our minds and to relax and strengthen our bodies.” This declaration was offered during a visit with Mrs. Akie Abe, the wife of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe. She expressed an intention to work with Mrs. Abe to “continue to inspire our youth to enjoy the beauty around them and to restore their minds in the peacefulness of their surroundings."
Amidst tense, divisive debates about the future of healthcare and environmental protections come these clear acknowledgements that nature is not a substitute for western medicine, but an integral component of our national pursuit of well-being.
While Mrs. Trump’s words come at a challenging moment in our national conversation, they continue the strong tradition among first ladies of promoting an awareness of the connection between public health and nature. We hope the country, the current administration, and her husband, are listening.
In response to Mrs. Trump’s statements made during a visit to Children’s National, one of the nation’s top NIH-funded pediatric institutions, Kurt Newman, MD, President and CEO of Children’s National Health System in Washington, DC said, “We share her belief in the power of nature’s beauty to help kids heal and thrive”.
A wave of recent scientific studies supports these ideas, blending knowledge gleaned from millennia of human observation with current research technologies. Programs dedicated to the study of the therapeutic benefits of nature at University of California at Berkeley, University of Exeter, and researchers at Baylor, Harvard and Stanford medical schools, have found that nature, especially open space and wild waterways, support healing, growth in empathy and compassion, management of stress, pain, and trauma, and help mitigate attention disorders, autism, and depression, among other indicators of health. An expansive list of peer reviewed research and endorsements is available at BlueMindRx.com.
“The quality of the science and what we are learning is encouraging. If we could package the outdoors and call it a pharmaceutical, it would be sold widely,” Tyler Norris, vice president of total-health partnerships at Kaiser Permanente told Outside Magazine last year.
Research from the University of Exeter’s Blue Health project provides scientific corroboration that exercising outdoors, especially at the coast, improves exercise compliance along with several key physical and mental health indicators.
A fast-growing and diverse range of programs, agencies, and non-profit organizations now put this science into action with favorable results.
Operation Surf, Force Blue, and Heroes on the Water are among the organizations working with military, fire, and police veterans to deliver aquatic therapy and support conservation through surfing, SCUBA, and kayak fishing.
Bobby Lane, a Marine Corps veteran and Operation Surf participant who had plans to end his life before experiencing the program, said “there isn't a feeling out there in the world--and I mean I've been on every prescription drug you can think of--and nothing, nothing can touch what it feels like. It makes you feel alive. Alive and at peace. To know that I can go to the ocean and to know that I can go surfing and find that peace is something great to hold onto.” For Mr. Lane, being in the ocean “gives [him] hope.”
Soul River in Oregon, Marimed in Hawaii, and Northwest Passage (NWP) in Wisconsin are a small sample of efforts to serve youth dealing with anxiety, addiction, and abuse through ocean, lake, and river wilderness immersion.
With a staff that includes 3 pediatric neuropsychologists, NWP helps youth, who often come to the facility with multiple, complicated mental and emotional health diagnoses, use nature as a therapeutic component of their rehabilitation.
“I grew up thinking I wasn’t going to make it to my eighteenth birthday. My mindset just switched...it makes me happy...I can just rock out on it,” noted Matt a Northwest Passage resident about his time in Wisconsin’s lakes and rivers.
“I am a passionate believer in integrating and interpreting nature’s elements into our daily lives to create a warm, nurturing, and positive environment,” stated Mrs. Trump.
Mrs. Trump’s transpartisan statement identifies her concern for human health and that she values nature’s healing influence. Maintaining the health of Earth’s ecosystems is essential to safeguarding human health. Her words, highlighting this inextricable connection between human health and environmental health come at a critically important time in our nation’s history.
The science is in: Nature will continue to help us heal, if we don’t wreck her first.
Wallace J. Nichols, PhD is a Senior Fellow at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies’ Center for Blue Economy and Natalie Spear is a former NOAA Sea Grant Knauss Fellow at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The 7th Annual Blue Mind Summit will be held in Stevens Point, Wisconsin April 4-6th, 2017, more information is available at www.bluemind.life
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