How Going Outside Saved My Mental Health

How this city dweller reclaimed her mental health by finding nature in the most unlikely place.

How Going Outside Saved My Mental Health

Written and photographed by Kay Rodriguez

When I finally realized I was struggling with depression, it had already consumed my life. Months earlier, I moved cross-country to Chicago, where I knew very few people and had no family. I felt increasingly isolated, and combined with the darker days and chillier nights of fall, I started to withdraw into a spiral of loneliness.

In the thick of it, I spent most days under mountains of blankets on the couch, sleeping. I couldn’t feel emotions anymore - no joy, no pain, just despair. Despite being in bed all day, eating and sleeping became difficult, and I stopped talking to my friends and family. In my mind, I was beyond saving. 

During the winter, my depression got so bad that I ended up in the hospital for several days. 

Following my discharge from the hospital, I had to spend months in a partial hospitalization program (PHP) for recovery, which left me drained and exhausted. I’d spend all of my remaining free time on the couch, unable to move or get up for basic human responsibilities. I felt like I was devolving to where I was before, back to the endless pit of despair and loneliness.

Then, one day, I gazed out of the big window in my apartment and noticed the blue sky and the sun shining after a long Chicago winter. Something within me told me to take my depression somewhere else and get some fresh air. I quickly stuffed my ENO DoubleNest Hammock, a blanket, and a pillow into a bag and trudged to the park across the street with my dog in tow. 

The park was an unassuming spot, with a big field and a few trees, surrounded by houses and small shops in the West Loop area of Chicago. No more than a few blocks wide, I could hear the noise from the highway nearby. It was the type of place some hardcore outdoor enthusiasts would scoff at and say, “that’s not really the outdoors.” But it was my outdoors for a long time.

Nervously, I set up my hammock between the trees, plopped myself into it, and buried myself in blankets like I did at home. Except this time, I looked up and saw the leaves swaying in the wind against a blue sky. Breathing filled my lungs with Chicago’s crisp springtime air. I closed my eyes and listened to the sounds of cars driving by, people playing with their dogs, birds on the branches. Even though I was doing the exact same thing as I would inside my apartment, it felt… different.

Once I realized I enjoyed spending time in the park, I started going more and more. I’d invite my friends to meet me, even just to sit and people watch. From there, I started taking longer walks around the city, ran on the lakefront, and finally began to conquer the depression that had held me hostage for so long. 

A woman stands on some rocks on the edge of a lake and throws her arms above her head in celebration of the grand view. The sun sets behind her over the water.


During this process, I learned that despite being an urban sprawl, there are stunning green spaces in the Chicago area. Aside from local parks and the sparkling lakefront, there are also lots of gorgeous state parks (and even a national park!) within a short drive from the city. Nature was all around me, I just had to redefine what “outdoors” meant.

Spending time outdoors was the one thing that got me out of my head and back into the world. I finally felt joy and happiness after months of despair. Nature nourishes my body, mind, and soul, and provides a calm space to practice grounding and mindfulness. It also serves as a gathering place to connect with people who share my love for trees, dirt, and fresh air. Today, I consider time in nature an essential part of my mental health routine, and it’s something that I’ll value deeply for the rest of my life.

Author Bio

Kay Rodriguez is the founder & CEO of Urban Outdoors and Outerly, two companies geared towards helping city dwellers discover and connect with the great outdoors. She’s a vocal advocate for using nature to improve mental health and combat the loneliness epidemic. When she’s not working, you can find Kay traveling in her campervan or on a trail somewhere beautiful with her dog, Rory.

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