Spending Time in Nature for Mental Health Awareness Month

Photo of flowers

Before I sat down to write today, I took a walk outdoors. I felt the sunshine on my face, heard and felt the whistle of the wind blowing through the trees, and listened to the curious songs of the birds along the path. I saw animals, both wild and domestic, and I talked with friends and coworkers.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month in the United States. Since 1949, Mental Health America and other supporting organizations have asked people to slow down and consider their mental health, and the mental health of those around them. For 2023, the focus is on how surroundings impact mental health. 

I am blessed beyond measure to work at Conner Prairie, a fun, mostly outdoor, museum that includes history, agriculture with animals, nature and STEM. The surroundings on my morning walk were a small taste of what I have found while exploring our 1,046 acres. I’m known around here for taking walks. I check on staff and volunteers, I explore looking for flowers and butterflies, and I walk to clear my mind and improve my physical health.

While doing some quick research I was surprised to find that Mental Health Awareness Month had been recognized since 1949. When I was growing up in the 70’s and 80’s it was still a taboo thing to talk about mental health. Stress, depression, suicidal thoughts… these topics were kept behind the closed doors of doctor and psychologist offices. How might the lives of my generation have been positively impacted by an honest discussion of our feelings and mental health? We cannot change the past, but we can change the discussions now and into the future.

Tunis sheep playing in the spring

My experience with mental health

Mental health is defined as “a person’s condition with regard to their psychological and emotional well-being.” I grew up in the country. Dirt, bugs, a dog who roamed the yard freely, and learning to ride my bike on gravel roads were a huge part of my days. School was a place to go to learn in a more structured environment, but most of the learning I remember from my childhood happened outdoors. I went camping with my Girl Scout troop and my youth group from church. I worked with my mom in our garden, and I played outdoors almost daily. When given the option, I would always choose another hiking adventure at Turkey Run to a day at the amusement park. I’ve always been a nature lover. My surroundings had a huge positive impact on my mental health.

As I moved through adolescence and early adulthood, I sometimes struggled with my mental health. Life was so busy that time spent in nature often had to take a back seat to daily responsibilities like college coursework. Around the time my oldest child was born, the term Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) was gaining acceptance. SAD is a type of depression that affects people most often as the season change, especially during winter. I distinctly remember a moment in my pregnancy and sitting in my car during my lunch hour because it was the only time throughout the winter months when I could see the sun. I went to work when it was still dark and went home after the sun had set. I didn’t understand that I was suffering from SAD, but I knew that seeing the sun daily helped my mood.

1859 Balloon Voyage in the winter

After my younger child was born, I went through some serious post-partum blues. I don’t know if anyone but me realized it. I had a two-year old and a newborn. Perhaps everyone thought my crying and lack of sleep was normal? It was not. Here is a clarion call to look around you and look within yourself. It is NOT normal to be depressed! It is way past time for the stigma of mental health to go away. Counseling is not a dirty word. We need to support communities and workplaces where people get the mental health help they need. If you or someone you know is struggling with their mental health, please dial or text 988. This will connect you to the nationwide network of crisis centers that provide free mental health support 24/7/365 days a year.

My youngest child playing at Conner Prairie

Nature’s magical powers

When my children were young, I took them outside… all… the… time! In April of 2005, Richard Louv published his book, Last Child in the Woods. It was a clarion call to remember the benefits of time spent out in nature: of learning how to identify trees, appreciate birds and other wildlife, and to let nature work its magical powers over us to lower our stress levels and feed our souls. My children spent more time in our yard, at state parks, and at Conner Prairie than anywhere else before they reached adulthood. Louv’s words reminded me of the childhood I had lived. I wanted that same gift for my kids. It took intentional effort to craft that outdoor life. It commanded rubber boots, water bottles, and backpacks for everyone. We had muddy floors, messy cars, and full hearts.

My oldest child learning how to sheer a sheep

As my children reached adulthood, I faced another mental health challenge. I was living with a verbally and emotionally abusive husband. When a woman is being physically attacked by their partner, people step in and intervene. Unfortunately, too often, when a woman is being emotionally abused, people turn the other way. Or worse, they encourage her to be more loving and forgiving of her abuser, as though that will cause him to change. I’m here to tell you — it does not. If you suspect a friend, family member, neighbor, or coworker is being emotionally abused, it is time to have an honest talk with them about their mental health. Away from their partner, away from their kids, away from their home. A core group of my closest friends asked about my life, and they gave me permission to speak freely while they listened. They did not offer answers or platitudes, they simply listened. Once I had decided that it was time to act and file for divorce, they supported me in any possible way they could.

Me and my closest friends enjoying an evening out

I spent almost two years re-writing my life. I see my counselor on a regular basis. I’ve found new interests that bring me joy, and I spend a lot of time outdoors, soaking up the benefits of time spent in nature. Going on a walk allows me to gather my thoughts. It reduces my stress level. Walking improves my physical health, and it is critical to my mental well-being. 

How nature benefits our mental health

You don’t have to work here at Conner Prairie to benefit from the positive effects of time spent in nature. You can come visit us, Tuesday through Sunday every week through the end of October as a guest or member. You can check out other local outdoor areas like Ritchey Woods Nature Preserve or Flat Fork Creek Park. Between the City of Fishers Parks and Hamilton County parks and nature areas you have over three dozen options all within a short drive of home. When you come to visit us at Conner Prairie, I have some suggestions. Stroll at a leisurely pace. Listen for birds and other animals. Look down at the pathways for animal tracks. Pause to let the sun shine on your face. If it’s raining, don’t be afraid to get wet. Breathe deeply and try to identify the scents around you. Smile. Sometimes we get so focused on our to-do list that we forget to stop and smell the flowers. Seeing and smelling the flowers always makes me smile.

Me enjoying the sunflower field at Conner Prairie

Recognizing mental health for a better tomorrow

Beginning today we can change the way we view mental health. We can have open and honest conversations with the people most important to us. We can check-in with our coworkers and neighbors. We can go outside and allow nature to heal us. We can support legislation that provides funding for mental health services and the protection of green spaces. For the past seven years I have written a monthly newspaper column encouraging families and individuals to go outdoors and enjoy the benefits of time spent in nature. Those bite-sized chunks are limited to the 515 words that fit in the print column. I’m thankful that I was given the opportunity to share today from my heart with no length restrictions. Mental health conversations have no set word count. They can be as short as “Are you okay?” and as long as several hours or days. If you want some resources to help start the conversation, visit www.mhanational.org and check out the 2023 Mental Health Month Outreach Toolkit. Choose surroundings that support your mental health. Spend time with people that bring you joy. Be the friend that others can come to for a listening ear. Let’s all work together to create a positive space for mental health conversations. Don’t just go outdoors, take someone with you. Life is meant to be lived and enjoyed.

About the Author

Carol Noel serves as Conner Prairie’s Recruitment and Volunteer Manager. Her love for the outdoors is fueled by this unique place where history, nature, and people intersect. You’ll find her walking the grounds, visiting the baby goats, welcoming new staff or volunteers, or dreaming up new ways to Step into the Story.