This year the VA will spend $8.6 billion on mental-health services for its seven million patients. (Illustration: Stefania Infante)

For Veterans, Outdoor Therapy Could Become Law

A bill introduced to Congress on May 1 could make outdoor recreation an official treatment option for veterans suffering from mental-health disorders. It's a huge opportunity for vets—and our public lands.

On May 1, representative Chris Smith of New Jersey introduced the Outdoor Recreation Therapy for Veterans Act. The bill, HR 2435, directs the secretary of Veterans Affairs to establish a task force to study the implementation of a mental-health program on public lands for veterans. This group, which would be composed of five cabinet secretaries (from the VA, Interior, Health and Human Services, Agriculture, and Defense), plus the chief of the Army Corps of Engineers, would be charged with finding ways to better use public land in treatment and therapy for vets—and coming up with the policy recommendations to make it all happen.  

"Studies have shown—and veterans organizations strongly concur—that outdoor recreational activities can provide powerful therapeutic and healing benefits as well as camaraderie for veterans struggling with combat-related injuries or post-traumatic stress," said Smith in a statement. "We should be thinking outside-the-box to discover as many ways as possible to help veterans, and opening up federal lands and removing barriers to access for remedial outdoor recreation is a no-brainer. My legislation would help increase access to this treatment option."

When you drill down to the human level, you can see how this initiative might lay the groundwork for one of the most promising mental-health laws in U.S. history. Take my friend Matthew Griffin, a retired Army Ranger who runs his own shoe company. When he left the Army after four tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, he seemed OK on the outside, but inside he was suffering. Civilian life, especially his relationships with friends and family, couldn’t be approached with the same high-speed problem-solving skills he’d learned in Special Operations. He’d planned to start his new job in construction just three days after arriving home, with only a weekend off after nearly a decade of service. He couldn’t conceive of a life that didn’t involve working as hard as possible, at the expense of his family and his mental health. “My problem was that I didn’t realize I had a problem,” Griffin says. Then his father-in-law insisted that he take a few days off to join a salmon-fishing and camping trip on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. “When I got home from the Middle East, I swore I’d never sleep on the ground again,” Griffin says. “But on that trip, I learned to appreciate the outdoors in a new way.”

That one experience led Griffin to find a daily outlet for his stress and energy—mountain biking—and inspired a new mission for his life: trying to bring peace to war-torn areas of the world through his shoe company. It’s as good an outcome for a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder as you can imagine, and thanks to HR 2435, it’s one that could become available to all of our nation’s 20 million veterans.

This year the VA will spend $8.6 billion on mental-health services for its seven million patients. Studies show that outdoor-recreation therapy is effective at decreasing the symptoms of PTSD and helping veterans reintegrate with civilian life. For veterans, outdoor recreation can also carry less stigma than other types of therapy and is therefore more likely to attract participants. On top of all that, outdoor recreation may prove less expensive than medication-based treatment.

“Access to the outdoors is proven to have a positive impact on mental health and physical well-being,” says Washington State representative Adam Smith, who is cosponsoring the bill. “For our veterans, the healing effects of nature can be especially powerful.”

The bill already enjoys strong support, not only from both parties but from a number of veterans groups and outdoor-recreation industry players as well. “It’s only right that we make it as easy as possible for our veterans to rejuvenate among the country’s natural wonders,” REI wrote in a statement supporting the bill.

The hope is that HR 2435 will be a first big step toward formalizing the inclusion of outdoor-recreation therapy within the VA’s mental-health program. Doing so would fund outdoor trips and experiences for millions of veterans. And in addition to those veterans receiving effective mental-health treatment, the VA would also be creating huge numbers of new outdoor enthusiasts.

The bill acknowledges the important role public lands and unspoiled wilderness play in American society. It could also direct one of the largest budgets in the world—that of the U.S. military—toward protecting public lands and funding the guides and gear necessary to recreate on them, all the while educating millions of veterans about the importance of conserving our wild places.

“My father-in-law gave me the gift of showing me what the rest of my life could look like,” says Griffin. “My hope is that every veteran can have the chance to do the same thing.”

Filed To: Public LandsNatureLaw
Lead Illustration: Stefania Infante
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