By Published: Dec. 22, 2022

The MINT study program uses nature-based social intervention to address and dimmish loneliness with teenage parents and their peers

It’s said that America faces an epidemic of loneliness, which, in turn, creates a mental health crisis—a feeling particularly felt by adolescents. New research from the University of Colorado Boulder, however, suggests that outdoor activities may be one way to help.

This study, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, used nature-based social interventions (e.g., courses and activities designed around nature to support the wellbeing of adolescents) to promote social engagement among pregnant and parenting teenagers.

What the researchers found is that those activities are effective in combating loneliness.

“Loneliness is this huge, silent problem that we don’t know how to address,” says Ashby Lavelle Sachs, a recent PhD graduate and the project co-lead. “Loneliness is intricately connected to many aspects of our lives. We need really creative, low-cost, accessible solutions.”

Ashby Lavelle Sachs

At the top of the page: Jill Litt in a garden as part of a different research project. Above: Ashby Lavelle Sachs is the MINT project's co-lead.

Jill Litt, the principal investigator and senior author of the article, agrees.

“Loneliness and social disconnection may be contributing to inflammation, stress, fatigue, anxiety and a host of other conditions, which in turn, if untreated, wreak havoc on the body,” adds Litt. “The prevalence of loneliness is on the rise, and never have people felt so lonely— particularly post COVID-19—although the trends were staggering before the pandemic.”

This project, called Meeting in Nature Together (MINT), created an eight-week program at a charter school for pregnant and parenting teenagers in Aurora, Colorado, to promote social connectedness. The program included 17 students whose ages ranged from 14 to 19 years old. The students were allowed to participate in online or in-person meetings and activities.

The activities in the program included educational content, discussions, park trips, meditation, journaling and nature photography.

And the study found that those activities really did make a difference.

“MINT showed us that being in nature together with others is important and even small gestures such as meditation and journaling, with group facilitation, can be engaging and spark moments of joy,” says Litt.

MINT’s research found that participants enjoyed their experiences with nature photography, walking, discussions and being outside, and that the participants felt more relaxed as soon as they went outside, leading some to feel more active when they went back indoors.

Although MINT focused primarily on teenage mothers and their peers, its applications are much grander in scope, the researchers contend, with the project limited due to issues from COVID-19. However, the team hopes to expand upon sample sizes with other studies, such as the “Reimagining Environments for Connection and Engagement: Testing Actions for Social Prescribing in Natural Spaces” (RECTAS) project, which will include 900 to 1,100 recruited individuals from six cities worldwide.

“The (recent) study was like a pilot—something just to test it,” says Sachs. “We now know what worked well and what didn’t, so we can scale it up from here.”

Loneliness can affect anyone, so nature-based, social interventions are designed to be accessible to everyone, according to Litt.

“Loneliness does not know any demographic boundaries,” she adds.

However, “it is particularly challenging for young people and emerging adults,” Sachs adds. “If you look at the statistics for adolescent mental health, it’s pretty scary the amount of adolescents that are experiencing anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation.”

To help overcome this challenge, MINT encouraged more experiences between its participants and nature, but focused more on social relatedness and connections. And yet, not everyone is comfortable with the outdoors, so the goal of MINT was to meet people where they were, says Sachs.

The program was designed to be flexible with the adolescents’ comfort levels and their accessibility to outdoor areas. To account for any issues, MINT also incorporated indoor activities as well. With a variety of activities to pick from, students were given many choices.

MINT showed us that being in nature together with others is important and even small gestures such as meditation and journaling, with group facilitation, can be engaging and spark moments of joy​.

“We avoided telling people what they should do,” says Sachs.

“This is a peer-supported initiative, so collective decision making is important,” adds Litt.

The MINT team hopes to be included as a nature-based, social prescription approach in other areas. Recently, the team has set its sights on options for universities.

Participants reviewed their experiences with MINT and the program’s nature-based, social interventions.

“I felt like I was being cared for and part of the group,” one participant anonymously commented.

Another participant said, “This experience was amazing. I loved meeting everyone in the group!”

“We had a lot of success,” says Sachs. “We really tapped into something that was needed!”

MINT is a project funded by a seed grant from the Renee Crown Wellness Institute, and graduate student grants, from the Environmental Studies Department and the Center to Advance Research and Teaching in the Social Sciences (CARTSS) at the University of Colorado Boulder. The Colorado team included Ashby Lavelle Sachs, Jill Litt, Eva Coringrato, Angela Turbyfill and Sarah Tillema.