VFW Magazine: Outdoor Activities Improve Vets’ Mental Health

This story appears in the June/July 2022 edition of VFW Magazine.

Researchers from the University of Utah and Westminster College in Salt Lake City found that participation in outdoor recreational activities could help veterans with mental health issues, such as post-traumatic stress, anxiety and depression.

In a study, titled Mental Health Outcomes of Peer-led Therapeutic Adventure for Military Veterans,analysis suggests that, overall, participants showed a “significant reduction” of mental health disorder symptoms immediately after they finished an outdoors program. The study was led by Joanna Bettmann Schaefer from the University of Utah.

The study examined 56 veterans involved in a Sierra Club “therapeutic adventure program” lasting three days and two nights. The Sierra Club, based in California, is an environmental organization with chapters across the country. The organization also has a Military Outdoors program, which aims to improve the lives of veterans and their families through outdoor programs.

Schaefer said programs such as the ones offered by the Sierra Club show “important promise”where veterans can receive support and experience a reduction of symptoms in mental health issues.

“Nature-based programs are wonderful alternatives to traditional treatment environments for veterans who want to feel better but may have internalized stigma related to mental treatment in traditional clinic settings,” Schaefer said.

The culture in the military likely makes the stigma associated with therapy worse because the military “focuses more on strength above all else,” according to the study, which added that servicemembers may judge themselves and others “harshly” for showing signs of vulnerability.

“These military culture norms may decrease help-seeking and increase social isolation, whichappears to be a trigger for veteran suicide,” the study stated, adding that “veteran-specific interventions” that take military culture into account may be the most effective at addressing theneeds of veterans.

“We work toward having veterans and military members benefit from the healing power of the outdoors,” said Aaron Leonard, senior campaign representative with Sierra Club Military Outdoors.“They deserve a greater access to the same lands that they swore an oath to protect.”

Leonard, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, said the findings of the study “lay out a path with important benefits.” Leonard, a VFW member-at-large, added that he has always believed spending time outdoors improves mental health.

More importantly, Leonard emphasized, the result of the study is more evidence that peer-led outdoor programs do, indeed, help.

“We hope these results lead to policy changes that make it easier for all veterans to find respite and healing in the outdoors,” Leonard said. “This research helps the VA understand the importance of therapeutic outdoor recreation.”

For more information about the Sierra Club, visit www.sierraclub.org.

EMAIL: dspiva@vfw.org

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