Ask the Pediatrician: Getting kids outdoors important for mental health [column] | together

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of columns about dealing with the current children’s mental health crisis.

In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month this will kick off a series of columns designed to give parents, grandparents, friends, educators and community members practical information about the current mental health crisis. Because I am certain that we are not going to solve this problem with pharmaceuticals, it is important that we focus on seemingly small, but not always simple, interventions that can be achieved without a prescription!

About 1 in 5 children in the United States is living with a mental health disorder. This is a pre-pandemic statistic and it is likely much higher now. The crisis is overwhelming our families, our schools and our health care systems. The solution lies in a focus on awareness and prevention.

awareness

Awareness is the first step and I think we are making progress on that. The American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recently released recommendations that all children be screened for depression and anxiety beginning at age 8. While this may make some parents uncomfortable, it is important that we talk to our kids about their mental health before they are not well. TikTok and other social media platforms have provided a voice for mental health awareness, and many celebrities have begun talking about their own personal struggles with mental illness. People are talking about it more, across all bandwidths and in all age groups. Taking ownership of this problem and talking about it openly is how we are going to solve this crisis.

prevention

Prevention is a word that is only newly applied to mental health. Yet, just like the prevention of heart disease, cancer and diabetes, you can prevent mental illness. And the great news is that the same things that help prevent it also help to treat it. Often you can do, read or participate in one thing that can serve as the catalyst for positive change. My next few columns will cover these prevention strategies, and the first one is the great outdoors.

The time that our children and teens spend on screens each day has more than doubled. The physical effects of this are headaches, nearsightedness and shorter attention spans. This increased time comes at the cost of less time in nature. Humans have an innate or even instinctual response to the outdoors. Research shows that our stress chemical rate of release decreases during time outside, and that we experience less anxiety and depression when we spend time with nature.

According to the American Psychological Association, children who live in neighborhoods with more green space become adults who have a reduced incidence of disorders such as depression, anxiety and substance use than those who grew up with less nature exposure. People who spend regular time outdoors have been found to be happier and more connected to their world.

Ideas for getting outside

As parents and grandparents, we should make it both a priority and a habit to ensure that our children spend time outdoors every day. The recommendation is at least 60 minutes a day. If we commit to it we can make it happen. Some ideas to make it easier:

— Move “indoor activities” such as eating, crafts or board games outside.

— Make screen time conditional on outdoor time.

— Plan family outings to parks, pools, and forests.

— Sign your child up for a camp this summer that focuses on the outdoors.

— Encourage your child to get dirty, and to use Mother Nature as a playground.

— Look for moments to point out the wonders of nature.

— Walk instead of drive.

— Schedule outdoor play dates.

—Move toys outside.

— Go geocaching.

— Plant a garden.

Government help

Community leaders should take steps to make this as easy as possible. Lancaster city is leading the way by protecting and providing green and blue spaces within reach of everyone. They have created a ParksRx program that lists parks, their amenities and how to access them on foot or by bike or public transportation. The Lancaster Conservancy has taken this to the county level to ensure that there are many protected areas where we can interact with nature and each other.

Many of our school districts have begun to amend their approach to recess and physical education to allow for more outdoor time, and more emphasis on activities like hiking, biking, walking and climbing. If we commit to outdoor time for everyone, but especially our children, we will be a healthier community overall.

As we start to finally focus on mental health awareness and prevention, let’s start with something as easy as stepping outside. Exposure to the outdoors has been proven to be both protective and healing for children’s mental health. Make it a priority, and the positive effects will last a lifetime.

dr Pia Fenimore, of Lancaster Pediatric Associates, answers questions about children’s health. You can submit questions at Features@LNPnews.com.

SUGGESTIONS

n Read an article: Visit “Nurtured by nature,” on the American Psychological Association’s website: lanc.news/APANature.

• Visit a website: cityoflancasterpa.com/services/parks. Be sure to click on the maps.

• Read a book: “The Nature Principle” by Richard Louv.

• Read a book to your child: “The Curious Garden” by Peter Brown.

• Make a change: Set a goal of 60 minutes outdoors for the entire house every day.

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