Making Space for Mental Health: An Environmental Humanities Approach to Social Media

Curator's Note

When we think of social media and mental health rarely do we position this combination as positive. This commentary, however, offers a project-based learning approach that positions social media as beneficial to connectivity of experience.

In March 2020, when remote learning suddenly became the norm, I started teaching a new course. My ongoing experiences with lockdown—being stuck inside with my four children and my husband out of the house, deemed an essential worker—made it very clear that in order to get through it we needed to spend time outside. Further, if I wanted my students to stay engaged (in a course examining natureculture) the most logical choice I could make as a teacher was also to get them outside. So, I returned to an abandoned project that juxtaposed urbanization and nature, in terms happiness and well-being, and began to reframe my course so students were required to leave the confines of their homes: to go outside and be with nature. An additional layer was to document these experiences on Instagram . The assignment, titled The Personal Narrative Project, was designed to create opportunities for students to connect coursework to their lived experiences with nature. It took the place of a standard, final academic research paper and was comprised of three stages. In the first stage, students were required to go for at least one 40-minute walk per week and keep two weekly journals (a written reflection journal and visual activity journal) to document their experiences with nature; in the second stage students reported out their experiences via Instagram; and in the third stage, which was a final reflective narrative, students were invited to consider how the entire process invited them to  “exceed the boundaries of the Anthropocene,  allowing us to make our place by inventing it in a way not measured by the end but by an ongoing commitment to stay with the trouble, to discover the accident, to spend time with the stranger” (Clary-Lemon, 2019, p. 176).

While I didn’t explicitly tell my students an underlying goal of this project was to support their mental health, this was a connection that many of them made:

[T]hroughout the term I have found that those nature walks and the time I spent reflecting on my own thoughts may have been my saving grace throughout the term.

It could be a challenge to motivate myself [to go outside] after a strenuous day of schoolwork but overall, I enjoyed my day a lot more every time I finally got out of the house.

[A]ny change in scenery or routine helped me to brighten my mood and also stay energized throughout the term.

And, while I didn’t image that this project would engage with environmental activism, students almost universally took up positionings seated in social change , as evidenced in the included Instagram posts; these positionings, however, while not always directly addressed in course readings (see Reading List), emerged within student-led discussions as students sought to make connections between their own lived experiences with natureculture (Clary-Lemon, 2019) and the fictional and non-fictional course readings. These discussions, which were framed by weekly reflections, inherently embrace social activism—students positioned their own lived  experiences alongside the texts making connections between often far-away narratives and their own right-now experiences. For instance, one student explained:

[The assignment] reminded me of the good that was in the world and that good was all of the nature around me. It made me want to protect our Earth even more because it feels like humanity is crumbling down…this assignment really made me look at the way that humans were interacting with nature in my own backyard. When walking or driving by myself, I looked at things very differently…I saw a field or trash bins and I reconsidered my consumption and waste and I evaluated my life to see how I could reduce my footprint.

Both student reflections and the Instagram posts illustrate how dwelling with nature can provide students with time to process their lived experiences. This simple activity provided students with an emotional outlet, to not only process course material, but a variety of day-to-day constraints—personal and academic—imposed by Covid-19. This is not what I envisioned. Ultimately, this experience has taught me that learning, especially active learning, should not be bound by the walls of a classroom—digital or mortar. My hope is that readers can find ways to adopt and adapt similar activities into their own classrooms and leverage social media as a positive learning tool. While the pandemic will not last forever, the stress of post-secondary education is something that students will continue to struggle with, the environmental humanities approach outlined above is one way to overcome and cope with such struggles.

What strikes me most, is the positive impact this assignment made to their lives, and how—unwittingly—a simple walk, something that is available to almost all of us, provided students with a coping mechanism that supported their cognitive development and mental health.


Reading List

Clary-Lemon, J. (2019). Planting the anthropocene: Rhetorics of natureculture. University Press of Colorado.

Geisel, T. S. (1971). The lorax. Random House Books for Young Readers.

Gill, C. (2011). Eating dirt: Deep forests, big timber, and life with the tree-planting tribe. Vancouver: Greystone Books Ltd.

Kolbert, E. (2015). The sixth extinction: An unnatural history (First Picador ed.). New York: Picador, Henry Holt and Company.

Langston, N. (1997). Forest dreams, forest nightmares: An environmental history of a forest health crisis. American Forests—Nature, Culture and Politics. University Press of Kansas: Lawrence, Kansas, 247-271.

Muir, J. (1897). The American Forests.

Powers, R. (2018). The overstory: A novel. WW Norton & Company.

Silverstein, S., Freeman, N., & Kennedy, A. P. (1964). The giving tree (p. 57). New York: HarperCollins.






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