By George Dornbach
[email protected]

For senior environmental studies major Annie Johnson, the healing power of nature is something to believe in.
After writing her thesis on wilderness therapy, a field she’s interested in pursuing after graduation this spring, Johnson wanted to change her lengthy document into something tangible. She saw a need for an alternative option for students who are struggling with mental health issues on campus, so she created Wild Minds. The program unites mental health awareness, wilderness adventure and positive student social interactions.
Receiving funding through a school grant, the free program will consist of seven sessions spanning over the course of the spring semester. Nine students will participate in a myriad of activities such as cross country skiing in the Arboretum, rock climbing on campus and volunteering at the Common Ground Garden at CSB. At the end of the semester, the group will embark on a four-day adventure in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota.
Johnson is a Co-Coordinator with the Peer Resource Program (PRP) and has extensive experience as a backcountry wilderness guide.
“I’ve guided trips and lead challenge courses,” Johnson said. “But I felt as if there was a step that needed to be taken further, and that’s what I’m trying to do.” Participants in the program each received a journal that will be used throughout the course of the semester to document their experiences.
“When it comes time to go to the Boundary Waters, we’ll have already spent all of this time together,” Johnson said, “We’ll have really gotten to know each other, grown closer and the journals will allow us to look back, reflect on our time and see our growth.”
The program is partnering with Counseling Services, Outdoor University, the environmental studies department and PRP. Wild Minds is also supported by the Active Minds club and the Men’s Health Institute.
In discussing the program with the head of Counseling Services Mike Ewing, Johnson discovered that the three main reasons students come in for counseling is due to depression, anxiety and stress.
“After doing my thesis research and based off of personal experience I’ve found that these issues can be helped by simply just being outside,” Johnson said. “When you’re outside, you’re being active: breathing fresh air and being connected to the earth in a way humans have evolved to do for over 200,000 years.”
Johnson notes that she’s not a therapist or psychologist, and she’s excited to learn alongside the participants.
“We’re letting nature do the work,” Johnson said.
But she holds a deep passion and belief for sharing the benefits of the outdoors with others.
“We have thousands of acres of forest at SJU and acres of restored prairie and forest at CSB that not a lot of students access,” Johnson said. “I want to show students that they have a resource they can latch on to and grab a hold of.”