Overview of the Study
Across the United States, college students are reporting increases in mental health needs. In 2015, the American College Health Association found that just over one in six students reported a diagnosis or treatment of anxiety in the past 12 months. Last year that number had risen to nearly one in three, including over half of all trans or gender non-conforming students. College campuses have been facing an increased demand for counseling and mental health services for years, with an overall 135% increase in depression and 110% increase in anxiety from 2013 to 2021, according to research led by Boston University public heath professor Sarah K. Lipson and published earlier this year in the Journal of Affective Disorders.
With the added mental health stressors of the COVID-19 pandemic, in addition to challenges with adequately addressing student needs in a virtual environment, wellness continued to be highlighted as an area for student affairs professionals charged with supporting the whole student during their higher education experience.
Increased demand for mental health services and the high cost associated with traditional, high-touch offerings such as one-on-one counseling, suggest that institutions face challenges in scaling up to meet the existing and growing demand. Taking a public health approach to this issue allows and encourages all staff members to play a role in addressing students’ mental health concerns. Students with low level concerns can be supported by leveraging additional resources and environments across campus that could be well situated to support students when faced with high stress or unanticipated challenges. Offering restorative spaces where students can go in times of stress or anxiety to calm themselves and reflect may be an emerging best practice.
At the University of Maryland–College Park, the Garden of Reflection and Remembrance has been part of the fabric of campus resources aimed at addressing and supporting students’ mental health since its installation in 2010. Administratively aligned under the purview of Adele H. Stamp Student Union’s Center for Campus Life, the garden contains a meditative labyrinth, water features, and benches which contain shared public community journals to be used for reflection. A small research team investigated how these community journals were being used to determine if the Garden of Reflection and Remembrance was being used as intended: to provide a space for reflection, solace, and solitude in an increasingly technological and busy world.
Multiple, intersecting frameworks were used to understand how the community journals are being used by authors using the garden. The research team drew from J.H. Banning’s 1978 campus ecology theory found in Campus Ecology: A Perspective for Student Affairs, as the impact of the campus environment on members of the campus community is the focal point of this investigation. The team also relied on the socio-ecological model used in public health and Stephen Kaplan’s 1995 framework for restorative environments, “The Restorative Benefits of Nature: Toward an Integrative Framework,” which connects these two frameworks.
Banning noted campus ecology theory explores the “relationship between students and the campus environment.” Research on campus ecology is centered around how students interact with the campus environment and how these interactions influence various outcomes. Importantly, in “Campus Ecology and College Student Health,” Banning and Linda Kuk noted that the use of campus ecology to address student health and wellbeing requires a proactive rather than reactive approach, arguing that universities should not wait for students to seek services but rather prevent and provide proactive solutions by modifying the environment before students require enhanced support.
Kaplan’s framework aligning attention restoration theory with the use of natural spaces serves as a connection between campus ecology theories and the socio-ecological model. Kaplan outlines four components of restorative environments: (1) fascination, (2) being away, (3) extent, and (4) compatibility.
Fascination refers to a particular state that requires little mental effort from an individual. For some, this may be sitting in nature, for others, running or knitting might provide this same experience. In order to feel as if one is away, one must be in a situation and state that does not require ample attention and is distinct from the predominant space occupied, for example, by shifting your view to gaze out the window rather than at one’s computer.
Extent requires that a restorative environment can be thought of as an entire other space, meaning that it has a comprehensive and detailed environment. A restorative location or setting can only be viewed as such if it meets the goals and purpose of the individual seeking restorative, that is, if it is compatible. For those seeking an escape from extended use of directed attention, an environment that serves a restorative function likely would not require further use of directed attention.
These frameworks allow the Garden of Reflection and Remembrance to be investigated as a possible community or institutional environment that may complement the efforts of others working to address students’ mental health concerns.
In the fall of 2019, a four-member undergraduate research team was convened to explore the ability of this campus green space to serve as a restorative practice emblematic of a public health approach. The team was led by a staff member in the student union whose role focuses on assessment and research; the manager of the Garden of Reflection and Remembrance was consulted.
Building on an earlier assessment conducted in 2015 that reviewed the first 15 journals used in the Garden, each journal used after 2015 was transcribed, reviewed, and coded by two members of the research team. Journals were each approximately 150 pages in length and contained on average 312 entries each. The codes from the 2015 assessment were updated and altered slightly for this project, resulting in 26 codes (including subcodes) used in the analysis. Once initial coding was completed, four journals were chosen for more focused follow up analysis and reporting, containing 1,249 individual entries and covering the approximate time period August 2015 through May 2016.
To analyze the journal entries, the research team read each entry and identified what topics were present and aligned each entry with all topics witnessed within the entry, with the goal being to examine the entries to determine: How are visitors using the Garden of Reflection and Remembrance as evidenced in the journal entries?
The research team approached the study first using a single “training” journal, coding entries into categories based on content in each individual entry. Over the course of multiple meetings, the research team debriefed the coding of this training journal to ensure clear definitions of codes were drafted and understood by each member. Once confident in the understanding of the coding process, three of the four undergraduate research team members were responsible for reading the journals and assigning initial codes. For each journal, two students determined the relevant codes for each entry, associating a given entry with all codes evidenced in that entry.
To ensure coding consistency was maintained throughout the process, the fourth member of the research team reviewed coding for discrepancies and provided feedback in consultation with the professional staff member. Weekly meetings were used to debrief assumptions and discuss particular themes or journal entries when disagreements emerged or the students coding the journals raised questions about particular entries or a collection of entries. Weekly meetings were also used to discuss reactions, assumptions, and biases encountered throughout the coding process.
Taking a step back from the codes used to classify the entries found in the community journals, the research team identified four general overarching and overlapping themes by which the codes can be organized and understood: Contemplation, Green Space, Community, and Mental & Physical Health. As journal entries could be aligned with multiple codes, there is corresponding overlap among many of these themes as entries may reference both contemplation and green space or mental wellbeing, contemplation, and community, for example. The overlap in these four themes are depicted in Figure 1.
As depicted in Figure 1, the majority of entries discussed topics related to community. For example, codes such as Encouragement and Love are found within this theme, along with entries that discuss various types of relationships. Two of the largest codes in this theme are Connected and Encouragement. Entries coded to Encouragement primarily offer statements that advise, suggest, or command their target audience to do something. As authors give advice to each other, they try to encourage positive habits or actions. One author discloses, “This is where I come to dream all of the dreams.” The entry continues and is directed away from the author and toward the reader: “You should still fight for those dreams that will never come true, because what you achieve just might be even greater than what you dream.” In addition to providing uplifting guidance, many statements by authors found within the Encouragement code inform readers that they are not alone in their personal struggles. One entry addresses other readers, stating, “To whoever needs to know that you are not alone… there are so many people in this world who want you to succeed and be happy. Keep your head up always…” Another author responded to an entry while encouraging the original author to “…Love yourself and Take your heart back.” This entry also presents another common way of encouragement which comes in the form of a reminder to “love,” whether that be a love for oneself or to love others or things.
The Connected code was developed and used when entries in the journals were responded to by other authors, creating a sense of community within the journals themselves. Contents of each connected thread vary based on the contents of the original entry. These response entries tend to offer a form of support or advice to the original authors. Other types of responses include shared emotions or experiences, encouragement, and affirmations. It was noted that the main types of entries that received responses were those that evoked a sense of loneliness, love and romance, or were a form of in-person collaboration of entries.
“The worst feeling is not being able to figure out whether you’re happy or miserable. Am I the only one that experiences this?”
And then, in response to the entry above, “No you’re not alone in this feeling. … just breathe, you’ll be okay. XO”
This thread shows a stream of encouragement and affirmations to the original entry of an individual struggling to understand their emotions. Entries coded under Connected show how multiple authors are able to create a sense of community within the journals by responding to each other, largely through encouragement and affirmations. As a result, each author in the journal becomes part of this unique community, creating a group experience that each individual can benefit from.
Other codes within the Community theme include relationships, which were further divided into subcodes based on type of relationship, such as friendship and family relationships or campus experiences, in which entries regarding student organizations and athletic events were coded, as well as entries related to experiences of love, social issues, and belonging.
Only two codes align with the theme of Green Space (Nature, Garden) and direct references within the journal entries to Green Space are limited compared to the other themes. However, both are critical to understand how the space is being used. Some authors reference the garden by way of articulating how much the space means to them and why they choose to visit: “This is easily one of the best spots on campus. It’s a Place to just relax and not have to worry about the stresses of school and Life. I’ve been coming here alot [sic] more often this semester. Recently, my parents got divorced. It has definitely taken a toll on me…” For this author, the garden provides an escape from the other stresses of their life, a separate environment that seems to provide them regular solace from the stressors they are experiencing. Another author shared:
“11/8 It’s so beautiful out here. There’s a chill in the air. The constant rustling of the trees. The stillness of silence. I like to come here to forget about all of the mindless hustle and bustle of academics, clubs, etc. Here, there is no stress. No fear. No anxiety. Nothing. There is only silence and an immense sense of peace.”
Other authors describe the natural features they see around them and the emotional influence of nature in their entries. As one author shared “Today is a beautiful spring day. My favorite trees on this campus are in full bloom and they make me happy. This garden is so peaceful…” This concept of beauty is often in reference to the garden itself; for example “Why are there cigarette butts around me in this beautiful garden?… we breathe the air around us, drink the refreshment nature has to offer us, and feed on the life around us.” The author discusses components of nature that are found in the garden like air and life while simultaneously advocating for the appreciation of these things.
Entries found in the Contemplation theme are often reflecting on larger questions, processes, or developments. For example, entries in the Seeking Meaning code reflect on the meaning of life, the meaning behind a particular event, or questions about how to live a meaningful life. The entries within this code usually contain a question that is often reflective. These concepts can be organized into three types of questions that authors commonly ask in their entries as they turn to the journals for guidance: questions about one’s existence and purpose, specific situational questions that lead to long term impacts, and less complex situational questions. This author has many questions:
“September 19, 2015. Do you ever get the feeling that none of this is real? That every single day we work and study and we stres [sic] all because someone told us to? I can’t help but feel like I’m not living the way I want to but the way someone else wants me to. I know we need money to survive but isn’t that all we’re doing? Just surviving. When do we start living? I’m not sure that we ever do. This isn’t what I thought I would get when I grew up. I thought with freedom came choices on how you want to live. Instead I got all of these responsibilities. And if I chose to live on my own terms, I choose to also create an image for myself that society frowns upon. Suddenly I don’t think like everyone else or live like everyone else. What a lovely life that would be. So instead I shut my mind and press on, for none of this is real. And none of this will matter when I’m gone.”
Entries coded at Thoughtfulness typically reflected broad lessons learned about life from past experiences. For example, in the following entry, the author reflects on a similarly broad topic as the previously referenced entry, but expresses their beliefs as a lesson learned rather than a question that remains to be answered:
“Humans are a strange [expletive] bunch. I’ve enjoyed the little sample of humanity in this book. I’ve heard from the sentimental, the cynical, the hopeful and the desperate, and I guess there’s not just one right way to live your life. People come to this garden looking for answers and this book is full of them—maybe not the right ones, but answers all the same. We have to choose for ourselves which answers are right; right for us.”
Similarly, another author shared lessons they have learned from reading the journals, and from talking to their family about mental health:
“I’m so glad I read these journals. It gives me perspective on what other people our age are going through. It’s always comforting to know when you are not alone… Both my parents, both very happy people, told me about their depression they went through in their young 20s…it helped me realize that everyone has their issues, and our early to mid 20s is a confusing, fickle time of our lives, and it can mess with us.”
Other codes within the Contemplation theme include Looking Back, in which authors are recounting past life experiences, such as the challenges of the previous semester or a past relationship; New Beginnings, in which authors look toward new chapters in their life, such as graduation, a new relationship, or simply the internal desire to turn over a new leaf; and Peace, wherein authors are reflecting on or searching for internal or external peace. The smallest code within this theme is Growing Up, in which authors reflect on their own growth and development, whether that be over the past semester or since they were a child.
Mental and Physical Wellbeing
Most of these entries within the Mental and Physical Wellbeing theme align with the author’s mental and emotional wellbeing as they process and reflect on events that have led to anger, anxiety, and sadness, usually around the general stress associated with balancing the demands of college. One author mentions the pressure of school by stating, “It’s the end of the semester. My first college semester. It’s been pretty stressful lately. Finals, internships, and relationships problems…” Another author shared their struggle of daily living by writing, “Going through every day with panic attacks, anxiety, depression, and fear of running into one of the people who sexually assaulted me…”
A smaller set of authors mention physical health components as well. In this example, the author appears to be expressing their own emotional pain as it relates to their friend’s physical health:
“Dear [Name], I know things are hard right now, and everything
seems so confusing; but, you can fight this. …I can’t imagine losing
you as my best friend. It’s hard enough being at college w/out you. …It hurts to even know you’re sick. It’s as if I can feel your pain. Keep your head high, and know that nothing can take you down; not even cancer. Love, [Name]”
Also found in this theme are entries related to Loss and Sadness. Many entries that centered around loss referenced romantic loss such as a break up; a smaller number of entries referenced death. Typically, entries that centered on romantic loss were written while the author is still processing how to make sense of the end of the relationship. For example, one author shared how in visiting the garden, they were hoping they would find solace:
“I came here looking for something to soothe this burning, aching, hole in my chest, and at least I have stopped crying. I probably will start again when I climb in bed, but for now I’ll feel the sting in my eyes and keep wishing his arms were around me and pleading that one day I’ll feel good enough for myself, like that I’m enough, and maybe one day I’ll be able to make myself happy without looking over for his smile, or reaching for his hand. He got me through the hardest year of my life, but I was too much and I was toxic to me. I understand why he had to leave but he still cares and loves me. I guess just not enough. I wanna be enough. Other codes within the Mental and Physical Wellbeing theme include Religion and Faith, in which authors reflect on the role of spiritual traditions and celebrations—or lack thereof-—in their lives; Anxiety & Stress, in which most authors reflect on academic stressors and challenges with general anxiety; Anger & Rage, in which authors express anger toward themselves or others over situations in which they find themselves, such as anger directed internally for cheating on a partner or anger directed externally for the revocation of their Greek organization charter. Two smaller codes, Sex and Drugs, reference engagement in these activities, such as writing in the journals while high or hopes of sexual conquest in the coming days or regret over prior experiences.
As campuses continue to grapple with issues surrounding wellness, stress, and rising student mental health needs, this exploration suggests that providing campus spaces and facilitating visitors’ ability to engage in restorative activities may be a welcome practice on a college campus. If college unions are to provide for holistic development, offer opportunities for connection in a variety of ways, and serve as student-centered organizations that provide needed services for students, as ACUI’s Role of the College Union statement indicates, this investigation suggests that the Garden of Reflection and Remembrance serves all these purposes. Given the frequency with which visitors at the university use the journals and the topics discussed, it appears that the journals are providing an outlet for students to release a variety of emotions; reflect on relationships, struggles, and challenges; and find a different type of community than what may exist in other aspects of their college experience.
Campus physical environments, organized in this way, appear to support the release of a variety of emotions. Approaching the built union environment through a campus ecology lens is supported here: through the provision of spaces for students and visitors to pause, reflect, and restore, these behaviors do seem to be occurring naturally within that space, likely contributing to students’ overall wellbeing.
Reviewing the elements of what Kaplan determined classifies a space as a restorative environment also provides support that the garden was developed to serve this purpose. The element of fascination is seen in the natural setting, labyrinth, and meditative water features available in the garden, along with the journals themselves; visitors can choose to simply read the journals rather than writing in them for their own processing. The sense of being away and the element of extent are both achieved by the different visual setting than the majority of the spaces that the campus community occupies: mature trees, shrubs, away from other buildings, as opposed to the many physical and built spaces that make up the academic core of campus. Compatibility as an element is more individual; we might presume that those using the garden to process and reflect are doing so because it meets their own needs or ideals of what a restorative environment should contain.
In their 2020 article in ACUI’s The Bulletin, “Student Engagement and Learning: Grounded in the Role of the College Union,” authors Loren Rullman, Brian Schermer, and Danielle DeSewal note that designing union spaces intentionally to highlight and promote campus values can be an important tool for promoting student engagement. Students who are well are likely better able to engage in the campus community and environment, and public health frameworks support thinking of ways in which our physical spaces can support student wellness. Union staff with the opportunity to rethink space use and design in their buildings could therefore consider questions such as:
- How are exterior spaces structured?
- How might we create both spaces for connection and spaces for rejuvenation and emotional healing?
- What smaller elements (green walls, fish tanks, etc.) might promote restoration within a smaller space?
- How are the elements of restorative spaces (fascination, extent, being away, and compatibility) managed and achieved in a space meant for reflection?
Providing ample spaces for students to reflect and restore, especially in our current environment, may be critical to meeting student needs as the years progress if the trajectory of mental health needs does not change. As seen in this investigation, providing such a physical space also allows for new and different types of relationships to develop, which are a key aspect of college unions. All individuals need ways to take care of their own mental and physical wellbeing, and providing such spaces is a physical reminder of the importance of attending to these aspects of their lives in addition to their academic and co-curricular pursuits.