Nature’s Mental Health Benefits and Where to Get a Boost in Milwaukee

The positive effects are real; here are five great local spots to get that much-needed dose of nature.

Morgan Balog admits that she should have been hospitalized when she was young. Growing up, she experienced deep depression and struggled with mental health her whole life. In college at MSOE, she got herself to a doctor who prescribed her an SSRI, an antidepressant, that helped to improve her mental health. 

Balog’s family never camped when she was growing up in Illinois, but after moving to Wisconsin, she got curious. Balog found her love for backpacking in college when some friends invited her along on a backpacking trip in the Northern Kettle Moraine State Forest. She took a few shorter trips to Colorado and the Smoky Mountains and shortly after, Balog decided to thru hike the Pacific Crest Trail, or in other words, hike the entire trail in one go, which can take six months to complete.

As she was planning for her PCT thru-hike, Balog realized that if she was going to hike for six months straight, taking medication regularly would be difficult. With the help of her doctor, she weaned herself off of her prescription so she could walk the trail without worrying about prescription renewal and the chance of running out.

At age 23, Balog started the trail from the Northern Terminus in Canada in June 2021, just one month after graduating with a degree in biomedical engineering. She trekked through the mountains of the Pacific Northwest which had experienced higher-than-average snowfall that winter. In February 2021, Snoqualmie Pass, one of the PCT’s iconic summits, experienced record-breaking snowpack

“When I started, it was like, ‘Okay! Let’s not die!’” Balog laughed before explaining that a friend of hers had to execute a self-arrest after slipping down the side of a mountain, “He was probably stuck down there for an hour while his friends slowly made their way down to him because it was so treacherous.” 

As she moved south, Balog had to battle wildfires to complete the trail. In 2021, California underwent unprecedented fire conditions, and the national parks and forests were forced to close in August. Often, especially later in her hike, she was forced to go around the fires and pick up the trail where and when she could. 

Even with the many setbacks and breakdowns along the way, she walked out of the wilderness in better condition than when she walked in. 

“There was one instance where I was having a [bad] day and I was just done,” she explained. After a full day of difficult water crossings and battling biting black flies, Balog only wanted to set up her tent and go to bed, but after turning the corner, she was confronted with one of the most beautiful mountain vistas she had seen in her life. “It could have been a postcard, and I literally fell back and sat down.” 

Balog realized that this view was only for those who were determined enough to walk to it, and she was one of the few. Moments such as those are the reason she keeps returning to the trail. 

Balog’s experience, though an extreme case, sheds light on a larger phenomena. According to a 2021 study published in SSM Population Health, nature-based interventions are effective as a response to manage pre-existing mental health problems as well as a preventive approach to keep people well. Even something as simple as daily gardening resulted in mental health improvements. These findings are not particularly cutting-edge; in 2013, the Institute at the Golden Gate and the National Recreation and Parks Association collaborated with the National Parks System to create Parks Rx. This program provides the support that encourages physicians and clinicians to prescribe time in nature.

Barb Kreski, a horticultural therapist who serves as the Director of Horticultural Therapy at the Chicago Botanic Garden, cites research that suggests that time spent outdoors is salutogenic, or mentally and physically health-promoting. Kreski describes this study on cardiac patients that showed recovery was faster and more complete when subjects were exposed to natural rather than urban environments: “On their treadmill, during rehab, if they had a picture in front of them of an outdoor scene…their blood pressure and heart rate improved.”

Carrie Fleider, the director of the Counseling Center at the UW-Milwaukee, names anxiety as the most common concern seen in college counseling centers, followed by depression, relationship issues and trauma. She agrees that getting outside is an effective tool when it comes to mental health issues. 

“For anxiety, getting out of your head and into your body is one of the most powerful interventions that you can do,” she explained, “Focusing on your senses, your physical body, and the physical sensations…there’s no better place than to do that than in the great outdoors.” 

According to Kreski, there are multiple ways that the natural world can ease stress and provide mental health benefits. Nature’s longer sight lines provide relief from most cognitive tasks that require us to focus on what is directly in front of us. Being immersed in the green of the forest and blue of water has a calming effect, and being in nature physically separates us from everyday stressors. 

“Those elements contribute to something called ‘fascination’” said Kreski, “When things that compose our environment fit together in a way that makes sense so there aren’t jarring juxtapositions. That organizing element of ‘things are as they should be’ is very calming to our psyche.”

Kreski also said that the longer time a person spends in nature, the more benefits they achieve. The same 2021 study on nature-based therapies found that being immersed in a forest for between four and eight weeks resulted in reduced depressive mood and anxiety symptoms, which could explain why a six month thru-hike benefitted Balog to such an extent.

Before her hike, Balog was prepared to go back to her prescription when she came home but upon her return, she was reluctant. After agreeing that Balog’s time in the backcountry had a profound impact on her mental health, her doctor respected her desire to remain off medication. Now, one year after her hike, Balog has yet to return to her prescription. Balog’s case, of course, is only one example. Any decisions about mental health or medication should be taken with the advice of a medical professional.

Balog continues to stay in touch with the outdoors to maintain her mental health. Earlier this month, she spent the week in Utah, touring all of Utah’s national parks. She’s also planning another trip to PCT to tackle Mt. Shasta (14,179 feet), one of the mountains she missed in 2021. And when she’s in town, Balog backpacks the old familiar Ice Age Trail on the weekends.

“It’s really wild, because I feel good,” she explained. “I’m pretty happy. And even though I’m now in a high-stress job, I haven’t felt the need to go back.”

5 Places for a Dose of Nature:

HUMANS ARE NATURAL creatures, and while we have built our lives apart from nature, returning to the great outdoors is a way to get back in touch with our mental well-being. If you are looking for a mental health check, visit one of these spots near the city.

If you want to feel like you’re up north but don’t have the time:

1. Havenwoods State Forest

This little known state park is nestled in the north side of Milwaukee, but being in the park, you’d never know it. Now the only urban state forest in the whole state, these 237 acres were once a U.S. Army base and the site of the Milwaukee County House of Corrections. Hike the six miles of trails and explore the various habitats to catch a break from the daily grind.

If you can’t make it into the woods:

2. Mitchell Park Domes

Believe it or not, the Mitchell Park Domes are considered the oldest Milwaukee County Park in the parks system. If you can’t get out of the city and you’re too far from a regular trail, take a quick stroll through one or all of the three climates found at the Domes, enjoy some water features and the greenery before heading on your way. Plan your visit here.

Photo by Visit Milwaukee

If need a quick getaway:

3. Jacobus Park

This park is small and sweet. Located right in the heart of Wauwatosa, a roughly paved path to the small lagoon and take in the fresh air. There are multiple ways to hike in and hike out, so take whichever route you need to find your center again.

If you don’t want to hike, you just want to be outside:

4. Kletzsch Park

Kletzsch Park is known for its athletic fields and sledding hill, but there’s a small waterfall site that’s perfect for a quick mental health reboot that doesn’t require a hike. Park near the disc golf practice baskets on the south end of the park and briefly walk the Oak Leaf trail until you come to the falls. You’ll hear them before you see them.

If you’re in the city and can’t get out of town:

5. Milwaukee Rotary Centennial Arboretum

Conveniently located on Milwaukee’s East Side, the Urban Ecology Center is tucked away in the Riverside Park neighborhood. Just south of the building is the arboretum that harbors samples of 70 trees indigenous to Southeastern Wisconsin. Here, you can find two miles of trails through the woods or even rent a boat to paddle the Milwaukee River. The perfect place to find adventure close to home. 

The arboretum sign on a hill topping the site of the massive former National Brake and Electric factory; Photo by Eddee Daniel