Lisbette Hernandez, University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing
Since its founding year, the University of Pennsylvania has expanded its borders so that its reach pans out much more than its central campus. For new and incoming students unfamiliar with the city of Philadelphia, Penn’s campus is a breath of fresh air. The trees that line Locust Walk, as well as select campus green spaces such as College Green and High Rise Field are a nice respite from the big skyscrapers of center city and the bustling streets throughout. I remember being a baby Quaker myself, and being excited to see so many students lounging around the communal green spaces. There were volleyball games, hammocks, picnics and study sessions. I even caught a couple glimpses of Penn’s Quidditch team running drills on their “brooms.”
Since starting at this university, I have noticed that students spend far too much time in lecture halls, dormitories, and libraries. Most of our time is spent indoors attending classes, studying, working, and juggling far too many leadership positions and extracurriculars. Although overused, there is inherent truth to this phrase: College is stressful. Being away from the familial support structure, exploring issues of identity and self, struggling with independence, and trying to balance good grades with at least the semblance of a social life. At a high-achieving, competitive school like Penn, these factors seem heightened. By nature of being a Penn student, we place a high value on education, are extremely self-motivated, and strive for academic, social, and monetary success. It should come as little surprise that mental health at this university is both a taboo and a prevalent concern. Since 2013, there have been over a dozen student deaths that have affected the Penn community. Just a week ago, came the tragic and shocking passing of the director of CAPS at Penn. The reality is that whether student or staff, we are immersed in a high-stress environment that makes it difficult to stay afloat without a myriad of support systems and tools that promote to self-care.
Last spring, it was announced that the construction of a new dormitory was in the works, immediately inciting student concern over the elimination of one of Penn’s largest, popular greenspaces. Studies have shown that living in proximity to a natural living environment reduces the risk of health concerns such as cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal disorders, respiratory diseases, and – as is the focus of this piece – mental illness. Studies support that being in (or even just within view of) green spaces can increase a person’s capacity for better mental health, increase optimism, and enhance recovery from periods of psychosocial stress. Perceived mental health is better when communities have access to green space. Self-care maintenance behaviors related to being in nature and physical activity (Ex: yoga, walking, sports) happen much less when green space is taken away.
Since children and those living in a lower socioeconomic status are disproportionately affected by lack of urban green space, I would be remiss to only focus on Penn students and staff. Elimination of urban green space affects the Philadelphia community at large. Because of its distance for central campus buildings and its location near the Free Library of Philadelphia, this was one of the few Penn fields open to the community. Kids and teens would spend time there; playing catch or just running around trying to tag each other. During the warm months, radio stations and community organizations could host events. It wasn’t until all this was compromised that I realized just how much need there is for such spaces in West Philadelphia. For many of the area’s residents, this little acre of grass on a college campus was the closest thing to a park.
Depression and anxiety are two of the most common mental health concerns that Penn students are faced with during their time here. Green space around Penn’s campus will not resolve any individual’s struggle with depression and/or anxiety. It would be unreasonable to expect the University of Pennsylvania to control for all the factors that negatively impact mental health, but there needs to be a greater sense of responsibility to preserving spaces where students, staff, and community members can de-stress and partake in self-care behaviors. Prioritization and conservation of green spaces on Penn’s campus is a way to support and promote community mental health.
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