Scouting Is Linked With Better Mental Health at Midlife

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Your kids may complain about those camping trips, but they’ll thank you in a few decades.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Harry Todd/Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

With all the choices of activities children have today, why would they join the Girl or Boy Scouts? Compared to the allure of video gaming, the promise of working with your hands and spending time in the great outdoors doesn’t hold much interest.

But new research from Great Britain provides a strong incentive to encourage your kids to sign up. It finds middle-aged people were significantly less likely to suffer from a mood or anxiety disorder if they had spent time in such a program.

Childhood participation in the Scouts or Guides — two similar youth programs in the United Kingdom — “was associated with better mental health at age 50,” concludes a research team led by Chris Dibben of the University of Edinburgh.

Such experience “appears to reduce, and perhaps even remove, inequalities in adult mental health associated with early life socioeconomic position,” the researchers write in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

Using data from the National Child Development Study, an ongoing study of people born in the U.K. during a single week in 1958, the researchers focused on 9,790 participants who were interviewed in 2008, at age 50. They found 28 percent of them had participated in the Scouts or Guides in the 1970s.

Participants were asked the amount of time during the past four weeks they had felt “very nervous,” “calm and cheerful,” “downhearted and low,” “happy,” or truly “down in the dumps” (a.k.a. “depressed”). Their answers were converted into a composite mental-health score.

Those who had been a Scout or Guide “had an 18 percent lower odds of a mood or anxiety disorder at age 50, after controlling for childhood factors,” the researchers report. Among that group, 210 out of 1,000 reported such an affliction; among those who had not been Scouts or Guides, the figure was 250 per 1,000.

In addition, they found greater levels of mental distress in people who grew up in a low-socioeconomic-status household. But this difference disappeared for poorer children who had been Scouts or Guides.

The researchers note there are many possible reasons for these positive outcomes.

“Scouts-Guides use small groups to enable young people to learn about relationships, understand their own competencies, and to become more self-reliant,” they write. “It may be that this early exposure to the skills needed to work with small groups enables adults to more effectively develop later-life social networks,” which have been linked to emotional well-being.

In addition, “There is now evidence that exposure to natural outdoor environments is protective of mental health,” they write. “One of the most important predictors of whether adults spend time in natural environments is whether they did so regularly as children.”

Developing social skills, plus a love of nature, sounds like a potent, and positive, combination. Somebody give these researchers a merit badge.