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How Utilizing Green Space Helps Your Mental Health

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Being “green” has become the newest fad, which few could argue is a bad thing.  The part that many aren’t aware of, even the greenest environmentalists, is that the benefits of the green movement aren’t only about clean air, water and soil. Availability of and access to plentiful green space is also strongly linked to increased mental health.  As prevention and wellness programming becomes more prominent in the provision of mental health services, it’s important to conserve and increase the availability of and access to green space, as well as incorporate the use of it into mental health programming.

greenspaceTime spent in nature, whether it’s camping in a forest, hiking in the mountains, or sitting in an urban park makes people feel happy, peaceful, rejuvenated, connected to something bigger than oneself. Green space is directly linked to decreased stress, decreased aggression, improved concentration, spiritual connectedness, and enhanced physical health. The reasons for this can be at least partially explained by the Attention Restoration Theory (ART),  which asserts that directed attention plays an important role in information processing.

Fatigue leads to negative consequences such as stress which is its resulting effects. Urban environments require significant directed attention due to larger amounts of stimulus, whereas natural settings have been found to be highly restorative to this process, reducing directed attention fatigue and stress levels.  There are also many social benefits including reduced crime and road rage, economic stimulation, and increased social networks.  All of these are factors that contribute to our mental well-being.

With more and more people living in urban environments and the availability of green space decreasing worldwide, it is becoming increasingly difficult to access the nature that provides these benefits.  Those who live in more rural areas-where forests, meadows, rivers, and lakes are right outside their front door or minutes away, don’t have to put extra effort into accessing such green space because they’re enveloped by it.  For those living in urban environments, not only do they not have immediate access to such green space, but they must also put in considerably more effort to reach comparable natural areas.

Once these areas are reached, the green space is frequently packed with other urban dwellers seeking similar benefits, disturbing the serenity nature it is supposed to provide.  Of course, there’s green space closer to home in the form of urban parks.  Some of which are fairly amazing as far as parks go, but there can be challenges to overcome in accessing those as well.  There often aren’t enough quality parks so they too can become packed with visitors, not allowing for the same restorative experience one would have in the more rural natural settings.  This is particularly problematic for those living in low-income areas who are already at higher risk for poorer mental and physical health because overall there are fewer parks in such areas, they aren’t as well maintained, and some aren’t entirely safe to be in.

While many of us are at least partially aware of the benefits we receive from nature, less accessible green space is a reality for many. The importance of conserving our natural surroundings and creating more where they don’t exist is out of our realm of consciousness.  It’s easy to get caught up in day-to-day routines and neglect the big picture not fully noticing what we’re feeling and how we’re living.  With rapid advances in technology and people not interacting with nature on a regular basis, we often forget our intimate connection to it.  Even when we’re aware that something needs to be done, it’s difficult to know what to do and taking action on any issue can sometimes feel so overwhelming that we don’t do anything.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that approximately 1 in 4 people worldwide have or will develop a mental illness in their lifetime and that the global cost of mental illness was 2.5 trillion dollars in 2010 with a projected increase to 6 trillion dollars by 2030. In addition to those with a diagnosable mental illness, the National Health Interview Survey found that 75% of the population experiences some stress every two weeks and approximately half of those individuals experience moderate to high levels of stress during those same two-weeks.  Stress is linked directly to depression and anxiety as well as most, if not all physical diseases; therefore, decreasing stress levels would increase overall well-being.  It would also reduce our society’s economic burden, which we know for the policy makers is often a higher priority than their constituents’ health.

Aside from the cost benefits of utilizing green space as a preventative measure for mental health treatment, there are also numerous other economic benefits that could also positively affect mental well-being.  Increased physical health would further reduce the cost of health care services.  Housing prices are higher in areas with easy access to parks and other outdoor areas as was demonstrated by Boston’s Big Dig project.  Boston significantly increased its green space over a 15 year span and as a result the value of those properties located in close proximity to the green space increased. Green space also attracts economic development which in turn creates employment opportunities.  Proximity to green space is also linked to worker satisfaction which increases productivity.  Reducing the economic burden could also reduce stress as stated previously would improve mental health.

With all these obvious benefits, it’s time for us as individuals and the collective to take action and really become “green.” Who wouldn’t want increased mental and physical health and more money in their pockets? Who wouldn’t want to leave a healthier environment and society all the way around for generations to come? It is our responsibility as citizens to educate ourselves and once we’ve done that, educate those around us.  Talk to family, friends, and neighbors about the benefits of availability of and access to green space.  Communicate with professional organizations and policy makers so that even if they’re educated on the issue they realize that it’s important to others.  Lobby, advocate, storm Capital Hill if necessary.  Most importantly utilize and encourage the utilization of green spaces to physically demonstrate the value of such spaces.  It sounds so simple, yet it’s often the simplest acts that make the biggest difference.

Amanda Stemen is the Education Staff Writer for Social Work Helper who will also make her fair share of contributions on mental health. She received her MSW from UCLA and also has her MS in Recreation Administration. She is passionate about the promotion of mental health through the creation of a life worth living which is also evident in her personal blog www.haikuthehelloutoflife. She can be contacted at [email protected]

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Health

Self Help Tips and Advice For Social Workers

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There is no denying the positive impact social workers have on hundreds of families and individuals throughout their career. They will tell you about the rewarding experiences they have helping others in need. Unfortunately, for every success, there is at least one case in which they could not help. Social workers see the best and the worst of society every day, and even the strongest among us can crack under the pressure. That is why self-care is so important. Being mindfully aware of your needs as well as the needs of those around you can keep you healthy and able to be there when you’re needed.

What is Self Care and How Can You Do It Every day?

Self-care is a practice that becomes a lifestyle. Understand and commit to the idea that it is not something you do once, it is something you do every day. The key is to be mindful and aware.

It is important to be mindful of where you are and what you are doing as you go about your day. Whether you are in a meeting or at the grocery store, notice how you are feeling in the moment. This can range from listening to your body and noticing your state of health to recognizing an emotional situation in your life.

Become aware of your breathing. When we are feeling stressed, emotional, or run down, we forget how to breathe. Our breath can become fast and shallow which deprives our bodies of the oxygen it needs. Pay attention to your breathing and focus on slowing it down. Allow the air to fill your abdomen, not just your lungs. You will find that mindful breathing exercises calms your thoughts, allows for greater clarity, and lessens your anxiety.

Now That You Are Aware, How Do You Improve?

It’s one thing to be mindful and aware of how you are feeling, but doing something about it is another matter. Improving your physical and emotional state requires some life changes as well.

Many social workers have the stress relieving habit of smoking or grabbing an unhealthy snack from the vending machine. It makes us feel like we’re taking a moment for ourselves. Instead of grabbing a cigarette or a bag of chips, try an e-cigarette starter kit or grab a granola bar. This gives you a moment away while making healthier choices through controlling the nicotine and sugar you intake. The idea is not to deprive yourself but to make small changes that will make you feel better over time.

Changing the way you approach daily tasks is another life change that will give you some added peace of mind. For decades we have been taught to multitask but all we’ve learned is how to start tasks but not finish them in a timely manner. By focusing on one task at a time you’ll allow yourself to finish a job before moving onto something else. This creates a sense of accomplishment and boosts your confidence at the job you are doing.

Maintaining Your New Found Awareness

Creating a support system is important when attempting to care for yourself. By relying on your friends and family you are willingly accepting love and nurturing that you simply cannot give to yourself. When meditating on an issue in your life doesn’t result in answers, one of the best things we can do is turn to our support system for help. It’s not necessary to face every challenge alone and often times, they can see from a perspective that you cannot. You may also find that the more willing you are to receive care from others, the easier it becomes for you to provide care for the people you’re working to help.

Self-care is difficult for those who spend their lives taking care of others. By allowing yourself the care you need you will find that it not only feeds your soul but it will improve your ability to care for the people around you.

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SNAP Benefits Aren’t Enough to Afford a Healthy Diet

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A new study from North Carolina State University and the Union of Concerned Scientists finds that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as Food Stamps, only covers 43-60 percent of what it costs to consume a diet consistent with federal dietary guidelines for what constitutes a healthy diet. The study highlights the challenges lower-income households face in trying to eat a healthy diet.

“The federal government has defined what constitutes a healthy diet, and we wanted to know how financially feasible it was for low-income households, who qualify for SNAP benefits, to follow these guidelines,” says Lindsey Haynes-Maslow, co-author of a paper on the study and an assistant professor of agricultural and human sciences at NC State.

This can be a tricky question to answer, as federal dietary guidelines vary based on age and gender. SNAP benefits also vary, based on household income and the number of adults and children living in the household. For the purposes of this study, the researchers used average monthly SNAP benefits for 2015.

To address their research question, the researchers looked at the cost to follow federal dietary guidelines based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s monthly retail price data from 2015 for fruits, vegetables, grains, protein, and dairy. They calculated costs under a variety of scenarios. For example, what would it cost to comply with dietary guidelines if one only ate produce that was fresh, not frozen? What if one only consumed fruits and vegetables that were frozen? What if a household followed a vegetarian diet? The researchers also included labor costs associated with shopping and preparing meals, based on 2010 estimates produced by other economics researchers.

“We found significant variability in the costs associated with following federal dietary guidelines,” Haynes-Maslow says. “For example, it was most expensive to consume only fresh produce, and it was least expensive to consume a vegetarian diet.”

To place this in context, consider a four-person household that has one adult male, one adult female, one child aged 8-11 and one child aged 12-17 – all of whom qualify for SNAP benefits. They would need to spend $626.95 per month in addition to their SNAP benefits if they ate only fresh produce as part of their diet. That same household would need to spend $487.39, in addition, to SNAP benefits if they ate a vegetarian diet.

“Many low-income households simply don’t have an additional $500 or $600 to spend on food in their monthly budget,” Haynes-Maslow says.

The researchers did find that SNAP is sufficient to meet the healthy dietary needs of two groups: children under the age of 8 and women over the age of 51. However, SNAP was insufficient to meet the needs of older children, younger women, or men of any age.

“Even though SNAP is not designed to cover all of the cost of food – it’s meant to be a supplemental food program – this study makes it clear that there would be many low-income households that would not be able to cover the gap needed to eat a diet consistent with federal dietary guidelines,” Haynes Maslow says. “Even without including labor costs, a household of four would need to spend approximately $200-$300 in addition to their SNAP benefits to follow the dietary guidelines.”

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Health

12 Years After Fleeing Katrina, Family Displaced by Harvey Seeks New Life in Dallas

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Ashley Aples, left, speaks with his 8-year-old son Zion at an evacuee shelter at Kay Baily Hutchison Convention Center. Mr. Aples fled to Dallas with his family as flood waters from Hurricane Harvey rose around their apartment in Houston.

Flooded homes. People stranded on roofs. Rescue boats patrolling neighborhoods.

Ashley Aples saw the chaos and panic engulf Houston in just a few days, and he knew from experience it was time to flee. He did so 12 years ago when Hurricane Katrina ravaged his hometown of New Orleans and forced him to rebuild his life in Texas.

Now he and his family are rebuilding their lives again – this time in Dallas, with no plans to return to an area facing years of painful recovery from Hurricane Harvey’s historic wrath.

“We’ve seen it before; we know what this means,” Mr. Aples said from the Dallas Mega-Shelter at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center, where UT Southwestern faculty are coordinating and providing medical care to Harvey evacuees.

By Friday, the medical unit there had treated nearly 200 people like the Aples family, while still awaiting a potential influx of evacuees struggling to escape the floods.

The 35-year-old forklift operator sat on a green cot next to his wife and 8-year-old son, who along with other relatives packed into two cars as floodwaters began to rise around their apartment. They headed north, not sure what they would find.

“My family got what they needed,” Mr. Aples said with a smile, looking across the multitude of volunteer groups spread across the sprawling shelter.

“Some of the worst times bring out the best in us and show us who we really are,” Mr. Aples said of the physicians and volunteers helping at the shelter. “We have individuals here of different faiths and races, all helping their fellow man.”

The Aples family was among the first of a few thousand evacuees expected to seek refuge at the shelter this week after torrential rains from Harvey left much of the Texas Gulf Coast submerged, destroying thousands of homes and killing more than three dozen people.

Inside the medical unit

UT Southwestern faculty, fellows, residents, and students from UT Southwestern Medical School who are spearheading the medical response at the shelter include a wide range of specialties from Emergency Medicine, Pediatrics, and Psychiatry. Caregivers are checking on blood-pressure levels, helping control potential issues such as diabetes, and ensuring evacuees are able to acquire the medications they may have left behind.

Dr. Raymond Fowler, who is directing the medical response at the convention center, said the team has plenty of experience dealing with such situations. He has overseen several similar medical responses to major disasters, including Hurricane Katrina, though he notes this operation is twice as large.

“We’ve gotten pretty good at this,” said Dr. Fowler, Division Chief for Emergency Medical Services at UT Southwestern, who holds the James M. Atkins, M.D. Professorship in Emergency Medical Services. “As soon as we can get them here, we’re ready for our friends in the South.”

The shelter has about 5,000 beds available if needed, and the initial evacuees seeking shelter in Dallas provided an opportunity to test the processes and ready the medical unit, said Dr. Raymond Swienton, Professor of Emergency Medicine, Chief of the Emergency and Disaster Global Health Program at UT Southwestern, and long-standing senior adviser to the state of Texas.

“We are now gaining access to large numbers of people who have been stranded for days in this unprecedented disaster impacting our entire Texas coastal area,” Dr. Swienton said. “We stand ready to provide shelter and medical care to our fellow Texans who arrive in Dallas.”

The medical wing has been bustling this week with volunteers and emergency response crews unpacking food and going over final plans. A pediatrics section decorated with walls of colorful birds and clouds was stocked with formula, diapers, and a box of stuffed animals. One mother sat on a cot in a corner, bouncing a laughing toddler on her knee.

UT Southwestern Pediatrics faculty physicians are staffing and providing support to the pediatric clinic daily to help treat the evacuated children.

“We will provide services as long as they are needed,” said Dr. Maeve Sheehan, Associate Professor of Pediatrics who is overseeing the shelter’s pediatric care with Dr. Halim Hennes, Professor of Pediatrics and Chief of Pediatric Emergency Medicine. “We will also be providing telehealth services throughout the night in conjunction with Children’s Health.”

UT Southwestern pediatric neonatologists aided with the evacuation of neonatal patients as the flooding began, and UT Southwestern pediatric nephrologists are providing dialysis to several displaced children.

Next steps

Outside the medical wing, Mr. Aples sat with his wife and son, listing his next steps: getting a job, finding a home, enrolling his son in school.

“Kids don’t have the same coping mechanisms as adults,” he said, noting one reason why he won’t bring his son back to Houston for anything beyond gathering belongings from their apartment.

“Every time we went back to New Orleans, we saw places from our childhood destroyed. Your mind is fighting itself, looking at the devastation. You have to fight your way out of that box, because that box will put you in a depression.”

Mr. Aples said he has explained the situation to his son but is trying to keep the mood lighthearted.

Mental health experts at UT Southwestern’s Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute say that’s generally a good approach to take with children dealing with such traumatic events.

In addition, they recommend showing a calm demeanor around the children. Parents should offer but not force them to talk about the incident. They should also filter some of the news updates children may receive from television or social media.

“This can be overwhelming and scary for kids,” said Dr. James Norcross, Professor of Psychiatry. “But the good news is that kids are remarkably resilient. If you can reassure them, keep them in a routine as much as possible, they will be able to overcome and manage this.”

Mr. Aples is keeping his family’s thoughts positive. He is hoping to get a job as soon as he can and perhaps have the family out of the center in the next few days.

Until then, he wants to spread his message of hope to anyone who needs it.

“I want everyone to really, really just love on their families and be optimistic about the change,” he said, glancing over his shoulder at his son. “We’re going to figure out what we have to do, and the whole family will come together.”

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