One of UCF Counseling and Psychology Services’ newest strategies in helping students alleviate anxiety and depression can be found on a 4½-by-5½-inch slip of paper.

Recently, CAPS mental health clinicians began carrying a “prescription” pad for gardening at the on-campus Arboretum. The department took a beat from Student Health Services’ “FARMacy” program, which launched last fall.

“We want students thinking about their own wellness, health and self-care.”

Associate director Teresa Michaelson, who helped foster the partnership, says it is part of a larger initiative to identify spaces on campus where students can engage in a peaceful environment through activities such as mindfulness, mediation, quality social interaction with a friend or outdoor hobbies, just like gardening.

“We want students thinking about their own wellness, health and self-care, and that’s why we’re calling this ‘Thrive with CAPS,’ ” she says. “Instead of focusing on, ‘I’m depressed and sad all the time,’ let’s shift it to, ‘I’m struggling right now, so I need to take extra steps to care for myself. What are some things I can do to help me feel better?’ ”

After rolling out the idea at a meeting in September, one of the CAPS staff members used a script that day with a student.

“Our clinician shared that the student was incredibly excited. The student had never thought about it as an opportunity to go out and be involved,” Michaelson says. “When she got the slip, it felt all official. Like she could go to the Arboretum and say, ‘I’m here!’ It helped legitimize the concept.”

Left hand holding a pen filling out a prescription for gardening, checking a box for twice a day
Any UCF students, faculty and staff can volunteer at the Arboretum. Shifts are offered twice a day Monday–Thursday as well as Friday mornings. (Photo by Nick Leyva ’15)

Grow and Thrive

Larry Marks, a member of the CAPS clinical staff, says gardening and being out in nature leads to a number of health benefits and positive feelings, which ultimate contribute to a state of well-being.

“There’s something inherent in connecting with nature,” he says. “It taps your senses in different ways from seeing the greenery and expansive views, and allows you to get away from the hectic campus life to a more calming atmosphere. You might hear some nature sounds, smell the fresh air, feel the sun and the warmth on your skin. It taps into a lot of your senses, which contributes to a sense of calmness.”

“There’s something inherent in connecting with nature. It taps into a lot of your senses, which contributes to a sense of calmness.”

Additionally, the act of volunteering itself enhances those positive feelings. The community garden supplies produce to the Knights Helping Knights Pantry, where students in need can pick up some for themselves for free.

Arboretum coordinator Kelsie Johnson ’16 says the staff helps guide and teach volunteers through the steps of maintaining the community garden, and anyone within the community is welcomed and encouraged to sign up for a 2-hour morning or afternoon volunteer shift.

“We get a couple hundred volunteers every semester, and we offer all of them the chance to provide feedback through our volunteer log. We have many students who tell us after a shift that they’ve had fun and relieved stress,” Johnson says.

charts depicting the number of appointments and students helped through CAPS from 2013-17
Data from the 2016-17 CAPS annual report (2017-18 has yet to be released at time of this article’s publication).

Ways to Live a Better Life

CAPS is the only free-of-charge campus agency designated to provide comprehensive psychological services to university-enrolled students.

Thee department continually sees an increase year to year in the numbers of students served and appointments provided.

It’s difficult to pinpoint what’s causing the increase of stress and anxiety among students — “that’s the million-dollar question,” Michaelson says — but they’re hoping the Thrive with CAPS movement will help provide viable, pre-emptive strategies for healthier coping.

In addition to the Thrive prescription, Marks created a flyer with nearly 100 suggestions for ways to enrich one’s life, take care of one’s body and live efficiently. The list includes examples ranging from developing a personal mission statement to deep breathing exercises to arriving to school early.

“The Thrive concept is a non-stigmatizing way of approaching mental wellness,” Michaelson says. “We’re wanting you to engage in wellness behaviors not because you’re depressed or anxious, but because this is how you live a better life and learn to better cope with life’s challenges.”