Travel therapy: Vacations can benefit people with mental health issues

JOONDALUP, Australia — Ever feel like heading to the airport and spontaneously traveling somewhere new? Researchers from Edith Cowan University suggest it may not be such a crazy idea. Similar to music or art therapy, scientists say travel therapy can benefit those dealing with mental health issues.

The research team, a unique collection of tourism, public health, and marketing experts, set out to analyze how tourism and taking vacations may benefit people diagnosed with dementia.

“Medical experts can recommend dementia treatments such as music therapy, exercise, cognitive stimulation, reminiscence therapy, sensory stimulation and adaptations to a patient’s mealtimes and environment,” lead researcher Dr. Jun Wen says in a university release. “These are all also often found when on holidays. This research is among the first to conceptually discuss how these tourism experiences could potentially work as dementia interventions.”

Travel can stimulate the brain

According to Dr. Wen, the wide variety of potential destinations and attractions around the world translate to many, many opportunities to incorporate treatments for mental health conditions like dementia. For instance, entering a new environment, and consequently having new experiences, facilitates both cognitive and sensory stimulation.

“Exercise has been linked to mental wellbeing and traveling often involves enhanced physical activity, such as more walking,” the study author explains. “Mealtimes are often different on holiday: they’re usually more social affairs with multiple people and family-style meals have been found to positively influence dementia patients’ eating behavior.”

“And then there’s the basics like fresh air and sunshine increasing vitamin D and serotonin levels. Everything that comes together to represent a holistic tourism experience, makes it easy to see how patients with dementia may benefit from tourism as an intervention.”

These findings feel especially timely, considering the global concerns the COVID-19 pandemic brought to many travelers.

“Tourism has been found to boost physical and psychological wellbeing,” Dr. Wen adds. “So, after COVID, it’s a good time to identify tourism’s place in public health — and not just for healthy tourists, but vulnerable groups.”

Moving forward, Dr. Wen would like to see further collaborative research conducted examining how exactly tourism can enhance the lives of people with various mental health conditions.

“We’re trying to do something new in bridging tourism and health science,” the researcher concludes. “There will have to be more empirical research and evidence to see if tourism can become one of the medical interventions for different diseases like dementia or depression. So, tourism is not just about traveling and having fun; we need to rethink the role tourism plays in modern society.”

The study is published in the journal Tourism Management.

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