Research Overview: Ecotherapy as a Tool for Mental Wellness.
College students today are facing increasing mental wellness concerns and higher rates of diagnoses than ever before. While universities are implementing programmatic efforts to address this issue, one crucial factor is often overlooked: the role of nature in promoting mental wellbeing. Recent research has shown that nature exposure can have a significant positive impact on mental health, yet most mental wellness services are provided in controlled environments, leaving other areas of the campus, such as residence halls, without psychotherapeutic benefits.
As someone who recently graduated from college, I can attest to the importance of addressing this issue and exploring new solutions to promote mental wellness on campuses. This paper examines the role of nature in promoting mental well-being among college students and the potential benefits of incorporating nature exposure into university programming. In the following sections, I will discuss the increasing rates of mental wellness concerns and diagnoses among college students, the potential benefits of ecotherapy, particularly the placement of house plants in residence halls, and the challenges that must be addressed to ensure that ecotherapy is accessible and inclusive to all individuals, regardless of race or socio-economic status.
II. Mental Wellness on College Campuses
The increasing rates of mental wellness concerns and diagnoses among college students have become a pressing issue for universities and student affairs professionals. Reynolds (2009), Schuh, Jones, & Harper (2011), and Zhang, Brandel, & McCoy (2011) all attest to the growing trend of students seeking psychotherapeutic treatment in college, and the need for increased mental wellness programming on campuses. In response, many institutions have expanded their counseling and wellness centers to offer group therapy and create safe spaces for discussions about mental wellness. However, most of these services are provided in a controlled environment, such as a counseling center or student health center, leaving other areas of the campus, such as residence halls, without psychotherapeutic benefits.
To address this gap, this paper proposes the incorporation of the environment into college students' daily lives as a way to promote healthy psyches. Ecotherapy, which induces changes in cognition, emotion, and physiology that enhance adaptive capacity, can be a valuable countermeasure to mental wellness concerns. By bringing nature exposure to residence halls and other areas of the campus, universities can foster and maintain healthy psyches in college students. In the following sections, this paper will explore the potential benefits of ecotherapy, particularly the placement of house plants in residence halls, as a socially just form of ecotherapy.
Ecotherapy is a branch of psychology that recognizes the positive influence nature can have on the human psyche. Ecotherapy is a form of behavioral counseling within ecopsychology that aims to reconnect human consciousness with the natural world. Many environmentalists and psychologists argue that the self-imposed separation between humans and nature has harmed human beings. Dr. Yoshihisa Kashima in Culture and Psychology in the 21st Century: Conceptions of Culture and Person for Psychology Revisited, highlighted a harmful assumption made by the major frameworks of psychology that is the "presumption of human-nature separation." Dr. Kashima explains that the environment and climate change must be accounted for in psychology as human culture impacts the environment in various ways, and changes in the environment correlate with periods of social well-being or unrest. Moreover, several studies have shown that experiences with nature have therapeutic benefits.
IV. Critiques of Ecotherapy
Despite the potential benefits of ecotherapy, it is important to consider the potential barriers and challenges that may limit its accessibility and impact on marginalized communities. One significant issue is the history of racism and classism in outdoor adventuring and the Eurocentric roots of ecotherapy. This history and stereotype of psychotherapy being predominantly practiced by white people can lead to the exclusion of people of color from accessing ecotherapy.
Access to nature reserves and outdoor spaces is also an issue, as racial minorities are often underrepresented in these areas. For example, while 32% of white individuals have visited a national park in the past year, only 13% of Black individuals have done so. This racial imbalance is also present in discussions of environmentalism, conservation, environmental justice, and ecotherapy, where communities and voices of color are often silenced.
Another challenge is the limited access to ecotherapy due to time and financial constraints. Insurance companies may restrict coverage for ecotherapy, making it difficult for those who cannot afford the costs of ecotherapy to access its benefits. Low socio-economic status communities also face systematic barriers that prevent access to healthcare services, including psychotherapy. Even if ecotherapy is available, socio-economic class differences between the client and the professional may create an additional barrier to positive outcomes.
To address these issues and increase the accessibility of ecotherapy on college campuses, student affairs and mental health professionals must be knowledgeable about the racist and classist history of ecotherapy and the outdoors. Universities can gain funding opportunities through grants, donations, and fees to disperse the financial cost of ecotherapy among the population instead of resting on one individual. One alternative to traditional ecotherapy techniques, such as outdoor education, wilderness retreats, and outdoor activities, is sustaining houseplants within residence halls, academic buildings, and student life centers. This alternative can reduce the barriers to accessing ecotherapy, such as cost and ability, and may reduce the racist implications of ecotherapy by creating a more inclusive environment. Overall, it is essential to ensure that ecotherapy is accessible and inclusive to all individuals regardless of race or socio-economic status.
V. The Role of Houseplants in Ecotherapy
While traditional ecotherapy involves being in nature and engaging with the natural environment, houseplants can also provide a form of ecotherapy in indoor settings. Limited research has been conducted on the possible therapeutic benefits of houseplants due to the deeply rooted notion that nature and the outdoors are synonymous. However, current research on this topic suggests that houseplants can have a positive impact on individuals' mental health, productivity, and general well-being.
Studies have shown that college students are particularly susceptible to the influence of houseplants. In a study conducted by Texas A&M University, student productivity increased by 15% when in the presence of flowers and plants (PR Newswire, 2003). Additionally, flowering plants have been found to have a greater effect on pain tolerance and the length of influence than non-flowering plants (Park, Mattson, & Kim, 2004).
However, the lack of external validity in the limited research on this topic is an issue. External validity is limited due to the heterogeneity present among participants and plants in true experiment-based research samples (Bringslimark, Hartig, & Patil, 2008). This makes it difficult to draw definitive conclusions regarding the positive effects of houseplants on individuals' well-being.
Moreover, the role of culture, society, and identities in affecting an individual's relationship with houseplants and the potential beneficial influence they may have has not been fully explored. Therefore, in order to better validate the claim that houseplants have beneficial effects on individuals' mental health and well-being, researchers need to devote more efforts to increasing the specificity of study parameters.
Additionally, more studies and cost-benefit analyses need to be explored regarding the actual cost of acquiring and maintaining houseplants, and whether or not the investment in houseplants reduces the number of visits to counseling centers and money spent on other mental wellness strategies.
While houseplants may not inhibit stress, anxiety, and mental illness from manifesting, they have been shown to remedy problems that are previously in existence (Hartig & Staats, 2006). Thus, houseplants can serve as a form of ecotherapy in indoor settings and provide individuals with a sense of nature and the benefits associated with being in the natural environment.
In conclusion, while traditional forms of therapy such as counseling and medication are crucial for addressing mental health concerns among college students, alternative forms of ecotherapy, such as spending time in nature and caring for houseplants, can provide additional benefits for their well-being. Research has shown that spending time in nature can have restorative effects on both psychological and physiological dimensions, and that houseplants may have a positive impact on productivity, pain tolerance, and overall well-being, particularly among college students. By increasing the presence of houseplants in high-traffic areas, higher education institutions can provide a low-cost, accessible means of promoting mental wellness among their student population. As the mental health crisis among college students continues to grow, it is important for universities to explore and invest in a variety of interventions to support the mental health and well-being of their students. Bringing the outdoors inside through houseplants may be one small step towards achieving this goal.
(1) Matsumura, J. L. (2016). Ecotheraphy as a Tool for Mental Wellness. The Vermont Connection, 37(1). https://scholarworks.uvm.edu/tvc/vol37/iss1/12
(2) Colarossi, J. (2022, April 21). Mental health of college students is getting worse. Boston University. Retrieved April 13, 2023, from https://www.bu.edu/articles/2022/mental-health-of-college-students-is-getting-worse/#:~:text=They%20found%20that%20the%20mental,criteria%20for%20one%20or%20more