My friend Shari Laliberte writes a blog called “Young Minds Eco-Wellness Collective: Freeing Young Minds to Flourish.” She’s a nursing professor at Vancouver Community College and recently completed her Ph.D. on “how aspects of socio-economic life affect young people’s minds (or mental health) and how we can better support young minds within youth mental health promotion.”
The word “eco-wellness” makes me think of “ecological wellness” (and so does the image on Shari’s website of a tree growing inside someone’s head):
The mental benefits of spending time in nature are increasingly clear. Consider the Japanese preventative health practice of “forest bathing” or Richard Louv’s work on “nature-deficit disorder”. The healing power of immersion in nature is a theme in narratives like Wild by Cheryl Strayed and Girl in the Woods by Aspen Matis. Similarly, in my new young adult novel, Gone Wild, two teens take refuge from their problems in the wilderness.
But my friend Shari is primarily concerned with “economic wellness.” Are economic and ecological health related?
Well, yes. My fifteen-year-old character Seth comes from a low-income family. He lives in a cramped apartment in an urban area where skinny trees with hardly any leaves struggle to survive beside the cement sidewalk. With barely enough money for bus fare, he can’t easily escape to a natural environment. On a school field trip to a wilderness park, he has found that “the stillness of the forest calmed him.” But he hasn’t been able to return. For one thing, buying the equipment that would allow him to backpack is beyond his means. When he does run away, he has to sleep on the ground and steal food from other campers.
The second main character, Brooke, comes from a different socio-economic position. At eighteen, Brooke has had a few more years than Seth to work at summer jobs and save up money. Her parents, though not wealthy, have supported her so that Brooke can keep her earnings for herself. She has purchased camping equipment and even has her own car. Although she has struggled with getting her parents’ permission to backpack, once she leaps that hurdle, she is on her way.
When Seth and Brooke meet up on the trail, it’s not as if Brooke has all the power and Seth has none. Nature is a great leveler. They help each other. Tapping into the sounds of gushing streams rather than rushing traffic, focusing on basic survival needs rather than on social approval, the two achieve mental clarity and emotional balance. As they work together to find food, water, and shelter, they build the strength to take control of their own lives.
Organizations like the YMCA do a lot to help bridge the socioeconomic gap, enabling young people from any background to experience the outdoors. But inequality is deeply rooted, and our land and water are threatened by incessant expansion. The economic model that demands constant growth and bigger and bigger profits not only widens the gap between rich and poor but fails to recognize our planet’s limited resources. Just as human health can’t be separated from environmental health, economic wellness and ecological wellness truly are two sides of the same “coin.”