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NY Outdoor RX Coalition Aids Veterans' Mental Health

The flag of the united states of America flying.
Congressman John Katko Office.
The American flag blows in the wind.

New York State's Outdoor RX Coalition is launching a website to spread the word about its services.

Established in late 2020, the coalition is a partnership between the New York State Division of Veterans Services and the Sierra Club. It was born through the state's Outdoor RX Act. The program gives veterans opportunities to engage in outdoor therapeutic activities that research shows can benefit their mental health.

Retired U-S Army Lt. Col. Aaron Leonard, a campaign manager for the Sierra Club and co-chair of the coalition, said there's great benefits to being in nature.

"We know that when a veteran spends time in the outdoors with other veterans, and they have a trained outdoor leader with them on that experience," he said, "that veteran will see a significant decrease in their sense of loneliness, which is directly connected to a potential for suicidality for that veteran."

He explained that the outdoor therapy model pairs a trained outdoor leader with participants, and the activities vary widely - from simple hikes to kayaking, multi-day backpacking and rock climbing. The most important aspect is for the group to converse about shared experiences as veterans.

As a veteran, Leonard added, he's seen the benefits of being outdoors. He first went through a therapeutic outdoor program prior to leaving the Army, and said he found it calming. It let him open up about challenges and experiences. He's hoping to share this sense of belonging with other veterans also adjusting to civilian life.

"Time and time again, I see the same thing happening with them," he said."Where somebody who might be reserved or having a difficult time in their life, in a short amount of time they open up, became more willing to participate in therapies, outside of what we're doing in the wilderness. Perhaps visiting the VA for the first time."

One barrier he has found, specifically in and around New York City, is people questioning why the outdoors might be good for them. He said the coalition also plans to work on a study examining how veterans can better access New York's state parks and public land, as well as public transit and disability access for older veterans.

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This story comes from the New York News Connection.