Van Life and mental health: experts say isolation and struggles can come with the idyllic photos and free lifestyle

Hope Blanchard Mitch Goudy
Country musicians Mitch Goudy and Hope Blanchard have lived in a van for two years. Hope Blanchard and Mitch Goudy
  • Living off-grid has been an enticing change for many people in recent years.
  • According to psychologists, van life can deepen one’s connection with the land and reduce stress.
  • But there are also challenges such as social isolation and privacy concerns.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Musicians Mitch Goudy and his wife Hope Blanchard have been living in a van for two years. They’re part of a community that’s exploded in popularity, in part due to the aesthetic captured on Instagram with the hashtag #VanLife, which has over 11 million posts.

Frank Olito wrote for Insider that the trend dates back to 2011, when it was coined by photographer Foster Huntington. It represents an entire lifestyle 10 years later, idealizing the decision to move out of traditional houses and apartments to adopt a simpler, smaller way of life.

Goudy said living in a van hasn’t turned out as “freaky” as he thought it would be.

“It’s such a change from living in an apartment or living in a house,” he told Insider. “But once we got into it and figured out some of the intricacies and differences, it’s just like having a home – you still get up, you still brush your teeth, you still get your day going.”

Hope Blanchard Mitch Goudy
Mitch Goudy and Hope Blanchard have turned their van into their ‘dream home.’ Hope Blanchard and Mitch Goudy

Licensed psychologist and crisis response expert Diana Concannon, PsyD, who is dean of the California School of Forensic Studies at Alliant International University, told Insider that van living is an attractive option for many because of rising housing costs and the dramatic increase in remote work-life options resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

But along with the freedom, the financial benefits, and the potential for a viral Instagram account, diving into van life can also be challenging, in particular when it comes to mental health.

Van life can deepen someone’s connection to the land

Psychologist Deborah Serani, PsyD, told Insider there are many positive mental health aspects to living on the road and detaching from the modern world. It can reduce stress, increase empowerment and independence, and “deepen one’s connection to the land,” she said.

This may be true for Kai Branss, who lives in a van that he’s rebuilt to look like a yellow school bus. He documents his travels on an Instagram account with almost 25,000 followers. It was incredibly important to him to downsize from an apartment in Berlin, he said, due to environmental concerns. He wanted to reclaim or reuse as much material as possible for his bus, such as old loft flooring he found on the street, and items found in scrapyards.

Kai Branss
Kai Branss enjoys the quiet, simpler life in his Alpine lodge inspired bus. wetravelbybus / Instagram

Branss told Insider the change has benefited his whole life. Being more in tune with nature, such as getting up when the sun rises and going to sleep when it gets dark, for example, has improved his mental health considerably compared to living in a hectic city.

He said living simpler means he has slowed down and takes more time to be introspective.

“You adhere more to your instincts, you know, what is inside of you,” he said. “That’s been a huge change for me, and I’m way more relaxed and peaceful and open-minded.”

There are challenges to the idyllic-looking lifestyle

But “there are risks” of van life, according to Serani.

“Researchers suggest that living in small, crowded spaces physically elevates blood pressure, heart rate, and irritability,” she said. “Mentally speaking, depression, anxiety, helplessness, feelings of not having enough privacy, stilted confinement, and the inability to have personal space can worsen well-being.”

Branss agreed his lifestyle is certainly not “all glory.”

“It’s a tough life for sure,” he said. “Because basically you’re living on the street, which means you are exposed to everything and everyone all the time.”

This can be stressful, he said, because his school bus draws a lot of attention that he doesn’t necessarily want. He constantly has to check on his water and firewood supplies – things people in permanent dwellings don’t often have to consider.

In the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, Goudy and Blanchard realized they had to make sure they were getting out of the van and going for walks so they weren’t living in each other’s pockets.

“It can get very isolated,” Goudy said.

Gabby Petito on her YouTube channel Nomadic Statik
Gabby Petito documented her life traveling in a van before she was reported missing. YouTube/Nomadic Statik

22-year-old aspiring influencer Gabby Petito documented her journey traveling the US in a van she owned with her partner Brian Laundrie until she was reported missing. Before police confirmed Petito’s remains had been found in Wyoming, body cam footage emerged that showed her crying and telling an officer she lived with anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Serani said she would caution those with moderate or severe chronic illness of any kind to “thoughtfully consider the lifestyle and its isolation.”

“Mental and physical illnesses require a great deal of consistency and continuity of care,” she said. “Issues like medication, access to therapy and treatments, and the need to be mindful of triggers and stress-related relapses are vital.”

It’s a hard lifestyle to give up once you fall in love with it

Like most people you may see on #VanLife Instagram, Goudy and Blanchard are in no rush to get back to living in a building. They’ve worked through the challenges over time, they say, and it’s second nature to them now.

“We were just visiting my parents, and after a couple of weeks I was like, OK, I want to sleep in the van again,” Blanchard said. “It’s like my dream home now.”

Branss lives alone much of the time, and is comfortable in solitude. He said 10 minutes on the phone with a friend, and the company of his cat with whom he goes on long walks in the forest, is enough for him. But he doesn’t want to be “the lonely person living alone in the woods,” he said.

Van life is not for everyone. Giving up your home is a big transition, and it can be complex to move back to normal life if you decide it’s not for you. That’s why it should never be a decision made on impulse, according to Concannon.

“Unless you are renting a mobile parking space, you will be moving around. A lot,” she said. “If constant location changes feel disruptive, finding a space to lease or reconsidering van life might be better for your mental health.”

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