Veterans have a variety of options at their disposal when it comes to managing the long-term psychological challenges they face. Some choose to follow artistic pursuits while others may benefit from therapy. Now, a new study suggests that outdoor activities may offer the greatest benefits. Researchers from the University of Michigan found that vets who participated in group recreation outdoors exhibited a significant improvement to their mental health.

Positive responses
The study was performed thanks to the Sierra Club, which operates the Military Family and Veterans Initiative in an effort to provide servicemembers and their loved ones an opportunity to access outdoor recreation. Specifically, the organization was interested in determining whether their program had a positive impact. To measure this, U-M researchers surveyed veterans before and after hiking and camping. They found that participants showed improvements in measures of psychological well-being, social functioning and positive outlook.

"The Sierra Club knows anecdotally the mental, emotional and physical benefits that come from spending time in nature, particularly for returning service members for whom the outdoors can be integral to their reintegration," said Stacy Bare, Sierra Club mission outdoors director. "The results of the University of Michigan's study reinforce these beliefs and support our efforts to make these types of experiences available to more people."

Opportunities abound
There are a wide variety of outdoor activities available to veterans, and a growing number of them have taken advantage of these unique programs. One of the most successful of these initiatives was launched by Maj. Mike Erwin and his brother Mark in 2010. Known as Team Red, White and Blue, the organization is dedicated to getting veterans involved in their communities through both physical and social activity. In just three years, the program has helped a large number of vets transition to civilian life, including Eddie Carmona, who turned to Team Red, White and Blue and running to improve his mental health. 

The organization has also helped launch some unique programs, including an equine therapy program in rural Sharon, Conn. Run by Samantha Case, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology, the therapy is designed to help vets who are managing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the Litchfield County Times. Case, who is doing her doctoral dissertation on the subject, says there needs to be more empirical evidence on the benefits of equine therapy for veterans.