At the 2019 SHIFT summit Dr. Bill Marchand moderated a panel of doctors and researchers in discussing nature contact as a tool for relieving psychological distress in active-duty military service members. Although the panelists were optimistic about the efficacy of such methods they also recognized that a body of rigorous peer-reviewed studies drawing upon lots of data had yet to be created. Most of the research done in the field thus far includes small sample pilot studies.
“Ultimately what the field needs is large, randomized control studies to really demonstrate what nature does or doesn’t do,” Marchand said.
It was during the panel that impetus for a new study arose: To test hiking as a therapeutic intervention for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and major depressive disorder. On Tuesday the leadership behind the trial — Marchand, Nick Otis and Dr. Gary Wynn — gave a presentation about the upcoming study as part of SHIFT’s spring Health and Nature Webinar Series. The webinar is available to view through SHIFT’s YouTube channel.
Each of the three researchers came to the project with a wealth of relevant experience. Otis is a senior research associate at the Naval Health Research Center in San Diego, and is involved in a trial that is testing surf and hike therapy as an intervention for veterans with major depressive disorder. Wynn, among other things, works as a scientist at the Center for Study of Traumatic Stress.
Marchand, who is the clinical director and service chief of the Veterans’ Association Salt Lake Health Care System in Salt Lake City, will draw upon patients in the system for the coming trial. Researchers will lead the veterans on hikes in Mill Creek Canyon, which rises into the hills behind the University of Utah.
Although the trial is designed as a pilot study, Marchand hopes researchers can use the findings to drum up funding for larger-scale research.
“Our goal here is to demonstrate feasibility with the idea of applying for a large grant to do a much more rigorous study,” Marchand said.
The study will be limited to 60 veterans, who will be split into two treatment groups. The first group will receive “treatment as usual,” meaning therapy and medication provided to them through the Veterans’ Association Salt Lake Health Care System. The second group will receive “treatment as usual” as well as “nature exposure via hiking intervention.” The intervention will consist of three three-hour hikes over the course of three weeks. To measure outcomes, the researchers will administer a number of questionnaires and checklists designed to assess the patients’ psychological well-being.
Although he acknowledges that the lack of rigorous studies in the field, Marchand is already an advocate and practitioner of outdoor activity as a tool for well-being.
“I get outdoors year round and find it to be very therapeutic,” he said.
As COVID-19 has complicated his work, Marchand has turned to the outdoors for peace of mind.
“We’ve had some unique challenges working in a health care environment,” he said. “I’ve found that getting outside is really helpful with what we’re all dealing with right now.”
Tuesday’s presentation was the third webinar in chapter two of the Health and Nature Webinar Series titled “Public Health: Nature as an Intervention Strategy.” Chapter three, “Conservation: Public Health as an Ecosystem Service,” will kick off in late May with a presentation by Florence Williams, journalist and author of “The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative.”
Sign up for the webinar series via SHIFTJH.org.