One of the challenges for veterans returning home is readjusting to civilian life. Previous anecdotal evidence had suggested that one way to facilitate this transition was to provide veterans with the opportunity for group activities in nature. A study from the University of Michigan—sponsored by the Sierra Club—investigated how spending time with a group in nature affected mental health. The results showed an increase in overall psychological well-being.

Researchers surveyed 98 veterans a week before going on an excursion, a week after and about a month afterwards. The veterans were asked about their psychological well-being, social functioning, life outlook, and activity engagement. After the initial survey, veterans went on a multi-day wilderness recreation experience, including hiking and camping, in groups of six to 12 people. The researchers found that after the trip, there was a 10% improvement in psychological well-being and 9% improvement in social functioning. There was also a gain of around 8% in positive life outlook. In some cases, these positive effects persisted into the next month.

Jason Duval, one of the study’s lead authors and research scientist at University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources & Environment concluded, “The findings suggest that extended group-based nature recreation can have significant positive impacts on veterans struggling with serious health problems.” Duval and his colleagues also observed that after the excursions, the subjects—including some with ongoing health issues—were more likely to participate in new activities or to help others.

This study provides experimental data for what the Sierra Club had observed anecdotally through their Military Family and Veterans Initiative, which helps to facilitate outdoor experiences for veterans and their families. Overall, the data suggest a possible approach for easing veterans back into civilian life. Duvall speculates that part of the salubrious effect of these excursions comes from the fact that, “in many ways, they recreate many positive aspects of the military experience.”

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