Nature-based interventions can have a positive impact on the psychological and behavioral health of vulnerable adolescents

Overbey, T. A., Diekmann, F. ., & Lekies, K. S. (2023). Nature-based interventions for vulnerable youth: a scoping review. International Journal of Environmental Health Research, 33, 15-53.

Nature-based interventions have been identified to have positive outcomes for physical, mental and cognitive health. Several organizations are using nature-based interventions using plants, animals, and/or landscapes to develop interventions for vulnerable adolescents and young adults that experience mental, behavioral, developmental or social difficulties. However, not a lot of research has focused on the use of nature-based interventions for this population.

In this article the authors take a scoping review approach with the aim of "determin(ing) the extent and nature of the broad and diverse literature on the topic and to identify key areas for future research and scholarly engagement by identifying gaps in the literature." This review summarizes studies that explore “wilderness-therapy, animal-assisted therapy, care farming, and horticultural-based interventions” for adolescents and young adults. Findings from 82 studies were included and they focused on adolescents and young adults between 10 and 24 years old who were vulnerable and at-risk for poor outcomes due to a wide range of mental health, developmental, emotional or behavioral issues. The authors reviewed both qualitative and quantitative studies that cover a range of outcome measures related to quality of life, health, and well-being.

Wilderness-therapy interventions led to positive outcomes across several measures such as self-esteem, self-efficacy, social interaction, school attendance, and other well being indicators based on quantitative studies. Qualitative research also confirmed these outcomes and noted that the positive gains were maintained after treatment. Animal-assisted interventions addressed social, behavioral and psychological outcomes and were found to have positive associations with higher levels of self-image, self-esteem and self-efficacy among other personality measures as well as lower levels of mental health disorders and better overall functioning and social cognition. Several studies also highlighted the positive impact of these interventions on communication strategies and coping with bullying. Care farming interventions were found to be beneficial to personal development and improvements to quality of life and mental health. Lastly, horticulture-based interventions were found to have mixed results – some findings did not support relationships with emotional and behavioral health whereas others indicated short-term positive associations with food and environmental behaviors and long-term communication and decision-making skills.

This review highlights the value of nature-based interventions for vulnerable youth. It presents overall positive outcomes across a range of psychological, behavioral and social measures for the four types of nature-based interventions. Another key finding that emerged was that positive outcomes were maintained post-treatment. Future research could include more robust empirical study designs, best practices and interventions that consider a cultural lens, an analysis of participant subgroups (e.g., age, gender, diagnosis), as well as an analysis of key findings from the interventions, and aftercare plans.

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