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CU in Nature website encourages students to get outside

Tom Fleischman/Cornell Chronicle
A sample of the nature prescription cards being distributed by Gannett Health Services clinicians to students with mental health concerns.

Students can feel overwhelmed by the pressures associated with getting a top-quality education, but a new website and programming aims – by nature – to lower their stress levels., which launched this fall, is a clearinghouse for the many natural areas on campus, including the Cornell Botanic Gardens, most just a short walk away for students. Don Rakow, associate professor in the School of Integrative Plant Science, Horticulture Section, in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is hoping students take advantage of an easily accessible antidote for academic and other stressors.

“The sad part of this story is that there have been a number of recent national surveys of college students that have shown extremely high levels of stress, anxiety and depression,” he said, noting that in a 2015 poll of Cornell undergraduates, a third of respondents reported being unable to function academically for at least a week due to those factors.

“On the other hand,” Rakow said, “there is a plethora of scientifically based research that has proven the beneficial effects [of nature] in terms of reducing stress and anxiety and a host of other factors – the evidence is overwhelming.”

The website is part of the NatureRx@Cornell initiative, which features time-in-nature events sponsored by the Cornell Environmental Collaborative, and a nature “prescription” program in collaboration with Gannett Health Services, in which students are prescribed time in nature as part of a mental health action plan.

The CU in Nature website contains descriptions of 16 natural areas on or near campus, including level of hiking difficulty, expected duration of a complete tour and how to access the area.

The site also has links to six outdoors-related organizations on campus, including Cornell Outdoor Education, which provides a wide range of outdoor experiences for the Cornell and Ithaca communities.

“COE and CU in Nature share a deep belief in the value of outdoor recreation for all students,” said Marc Magnus-Sharpe, the Lindseth Director of Cornell Outdoor Education. “We’re encouraging everyone to get outside every day, if even for 20 minutes. Better yet, walk the longer way around Beebe Lake on your way back from class, pick apples, throw a Frisbee with a friend or go sledding when the snow arrives.”

Studies have concluded that spending even a few hours each week in nature can be beneficial in a number of ways. A 2015 study in PNAS on the benefits of being out in nature reported that participants who went on a 90-minute walk through a natural environment showed reduced neural activity in an area of the brain linked to risk for mental illness, compared with those who walked through an urban environment.

Greg Eells, associate director of Gannett Health Services and director of Counseling and Psychological Services, said a big part of a person’s ability to overcome mental or emotional hurdles is the willingness to try something new.

“One of the ways I think of psychopathology and people struggling is the fact that they become inflexible around mood, behavior, thinking patterns,” said Eells, who noted that around 4,600 students – more than 1 in 5 at the university – visited Gannett with mental health concerns last year.

“A big part of psychological health and being able to bounce back is being able to be flexible, to be able to respond in unique ways,” he said. “When something doesn’t work, try something else. And I see CU in Nature, and Nature Rx, as a way to do that … And we’re so blessed to have such a unique campus with so many spectacularly gorgeous natural areas.”

Eells said he’s still trying to figure out the best way to track information by way of the NatureRx@Cornell prescription cards, which he’s given to his therapists. They have recommended “dosages” of outdoors time, from once to seven times a week.

Rakow said that with the launch of the site in August, the main goal this semester is making students aware of it and what it has to offer.

“We want people to discover that being in nature does not take a major time commitment,” Rakow said. “From anywhere on campus, within five or 10 minutes, they can be in a beautiful natural area. Let’s use that as a resource to improve the well-being of our students.”

A reminder: The lower Cascadilla Gorge Trail between Linn Street and College Avenue is closed until spring, according to Cornell's Gorge Safety website. All other gorge trails remain open.

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