UHCL’s serene wildlife supports students’ mental health, can help decrease anxiety
The University of Houston- Clear Lake’s campus sits on a 524-acre wildlife reserve where students can experience the beauty of a natural environment on campus while attending classes. Being in a green, relaxing setting is more than just about beauty--it can create the calming backdrop that supports creativity and lowers levels of anxiety and depression that many students face.
Associate Director and Training Director Stefanie Denu is one of the licensed psychologists in UHCL’s Counseling Services. She said that mental health is not only about what we think, but it is a holistic concept.
“Our physical well-being, self-care, our relationships, our internal thoughts, our emotions, our self-compassion, all of those things play strongly into mental health,” Denu said. “Mental health isn’t just about what we think and how we think about it. It is impacted by controllable and uncontrollable factors.”
There are many different reasons why a college student’s mental health may be at risk. Performing well in the classroom, the pressures of making it through as a first-generation college student, and challenges in students’ home life can all play a role.
“Whether students experience pressure from family or themselves, the stress can derive from that identity as a first-generation student, or feeling the need to prove themselves,” Denu said. “The result of that is being self-critical. Our students have high expectations of themselves, and that mindset can lead them to stress very easily.”
Studying indoors makes some students feel confined, whereas being outdoors can make them feel free and refreshed. UHCL’s campus has plenty of outdoor space for students to use for exploration and for quiet study.
“There can be a sense of feeling trapped in a room while studying inside,” Denu said. “Ironically, that can heighten anxiety. In contrast, being in nature studying, even if it’s just for a short time, can reduce the psychological sense of restriction and lead to a greater sense of freedom.”
Denu explained that the body starts to relax in an open space. In turn, the mind starts to open up, and this allows it to be easier for one to focus and get creativity flowing. Distractions and comparisons to other students may also be eliminated in a natural environment.
Jacob Howard is an upcoming senior pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering. He said he chose to enroll at UHCL because it was close to home and a small, peaceful campus. Studying outside in nice weather makes it easier for him to stay on task.
“It is honestly very refreshing especially when there is a breeze. Studying outside is peaceful as opposed to being in a louder public space such as inside a building,” Howard said.
“Over the past year and a half, I've grown an appreciation for the outdoors. With that time spent outside, I've become a more well-rounded person. I've gone to many parks around the Houston area, but by far I feel most at home when I'm on the UHCL Nature Trail or at Potter's Pond.”
Howard said going on walks around campus gives a space that fosters mental clarity and peace of mind.
“Being outside in general is great. You can listen to nature, see birds of all sorts and animals that are active around us. The 'outside' serves as that separate space from academics,” he said.
“I'm not as worried with coursework when I'm outside because I'm more interested in the wildlife that I might see and the things I might hear. Whenever I take walks, they serve as a mental reboot, like restarting your phone,” he explained. “The environment helps me relax so I can reapproach academics with a refreshed mind.”
Howard said if students are looking for a way to improve mental health through nature, the Environmental Justice Association, a student organization on campus, is a great group. They host volunteering events on and off campus fairly often.
“I've volunteered with them a few times, and although I'm physically tired from the work, I always find that I'm in a better mental space than before,” he said.
UHCL’s Counseling Services happily offers mental health services to students. Most of the services are free, and are confidential. There are also apps available to download that help students monitor their mental health.
“We offer individual, couples, and group therapy, as well as psychiatry for a small fee,” Denu said. “Our most fun resource that we offer is The Mind Spa. It’s a heavenly room in our office that offers massage chairs, aromatherapy, biofeedback equipment, and more. Students can call our office to book that room.”
She said that a student’s environment can really shape their mental space.
“Sometimes in city universities, there is so much stimuli even just walking to class. I think that students here can come in with a fresher mental state,” Denu said.
For more information about mental health services available at UHCL, visit www.uhcl.edu/counseling-services/