Giving Thought: Nature as an antidote

Remedying mental health issues with nature and community stewardship

Allison Alexander
Giving Thought
Allison Alexander is the Director Strategic Partnerships and Communication at Aspen Community Foundation. ACF with the support of its donors works with a number of nonprofits in the Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys. Throughout the year, we will work to highlight nonprofits in the region.
Allison Alexander/Courtesy photo

The surgeon general issued a warning last December about the youth mental health crisis in this country. Rates of suicide and depression are increasing at dramatic rates. Many of us are left to wonder: Is there anything that can be done?

Last week, a sold-out audience filled the Aspen Institute’s Paepcke Auditorium to hear from Dr. Lisa Miller about emerging research from her book, “The Awakened Brain,” suggesting there is something available to all of us that is 80% protective against suicide and recurrent depression. Sustained spiritual life and connection, which all humans have access to, is emerging as the antidote.

Dr. Miller’s work underscores the difference between spirituality and religiosity and suggests that there are many pathways to spirituality. MRI data and other science confirms that our brains are all inherently wired for spiritual connection. She emphasized that nature is an access point for a spiritual life and that a connection to nature changes our brains to allow for deeper connections and that connection is part of what makes spirituality protective.

Looking around Aspen, there is no shortage of nature available to us to connect with and explore, but not every child growing up in our region has a depth of exposure and experience. Furthermore, not all of them are aware of the options available for connecting with nature on a deeper level through stewardship and community building experiences.

In 2021, the idea of connecting environmental and nature-focused community partners to create a youth empowerment and experiential education program emerged at Aspen Community Foundation and Youth in Nature was born.

Youth in Nature is an empowerment program for local high school students that combines nature, community building, exploration, and self-discovery, all elements supported by Dr. Miller’s research. Co-developed and led by a team of community partners and made possible through the generosity of the Jonathan D. Lewis Foundation. Youth In Nature’s purpose is to spark a curiosity for the natural environment, support social and emotional growth, and encourage students to explore their interests.

The pilot program began in June with orientation at Aspen Valley Land Trust’s Coffman Ranch in Carbondale and was followed by a four-day trip to a 10th Mountain Division Hut in July. During the 2022-23 school year, students will continue to meet monthly to participate in partner-led activities.

Eleven students from four area high schools are represented in the cohort. The partner organizations they will be working with include: Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers, Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, Aspen Valley Land Trust, The Buddy Program, The Farm Collaborative, GlenX Career Expo, and Aspen Skiing Co..

“Experiential learning experiences, like the ones students will experience through Youth in Nature, allow them to expand their ideas about what might be possible not only for themselves, but for their communities,” says Mark C. Zitelli from the Jonathan D. Lewis Foundation. 

Ben Sherman, education director of Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers, joined students on the hut trip and shared that witnessing the power of bringing students of diverse backgrounds together allowed them to create new connections outside of their comfort zones and see themselves grow individually and collectively and he trusts that will continue throughout the year. 

He noted that these connections were so strong that a stewardship project meant to take two afternoons to complete was finished in three and a half hours because of the teamwork the students developed.

Other partners echoed the importance of creating these opportunities for youth to combat the realities they are facing.

Aspen Valley Land Trust’s executive director, Suzanne Stephens, noted: “These days especially, teens face daunting challenges — from a climate crisis to global unrest and social anxiety exacerbated by social media and complicated peer-to-peer dynamics. A deeper connection with nature — and working with others to care for our natural world — can reduce anxiety, give valuable perspective, agency, and build the authentic relationships we all need. This program has the opportunity to provide so much to our kids, our community, and the land.”

Teens who participated in the hut trip noted that it allowed them to reconnect with themselves away from daily stressors and look at the place they live differently. Additionally, they shared an appreciation for connecting with peers outside of their normal groups.

Both Sherman and Stephens said this experience has created excitement for more community partnerships and is supporting their efforts to reach more area teens through collaboration.

As Dr. Miller said, when individuals connect to their true nature in nature, there is a ripple effect. Youth In Nature connects individuals and organizations and its impact is already being felt by those involved and the momentum will continue to be felt throughout the region as partnerships strengthen.

Allison Alexander is the development director of Aspen Community Foundation. The organization, with the support of its donors, works with a number of nonprofits in the Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys.