Science: Mental Health/Wellbeing and Nature

Here is some of the scientific evidence supporting that – and how – nature connection is beneficial to mental health and wellbeing:

Impact on Wellbeing:

  • Greenspace availability has a documented impact on a range of wellbeing indicators, such as:
    • improved general health (deVries, S., Verheij, R.A., Groenewegen, P.P., Spreeuwenberg, P. (2003) Natural environments – healthy environments? An exploratory analysis of the relationship between greenspace and health, Environmental Planning, 35, 1717 – 173),
    • a higher degree of social interaction (Sullivan, W.C., Kuo, F.E., & DePooter, S.F. (2004) The fruit of urban nature: vital neighbourhood spaces. Environment and Behaviour, 36, 678 – 700),
    • reduction of mental fatigue (Kuo, F.E. (2001) Coping with poverty: impacts of environment and attention in the inner city. Environment and Behaviour, 33, 5 – 34),
    • and providing opportunities for reflection (Herzog, T.R, Black, A.M., Fountaine, K.A., & Knotts, D.J. (1997) Reflection and attentional recovery as distinctive benefits of restorative environments. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 17, 165–170).
  • It appears that the interaction with natural environments (as opposed to just passive perception of natural settings) may be particularly potent in terms of improving mental health and wellbeing. (Pearson, D.G., & Craig, T. (2014) The great outdoors? Exploring the mental health benefits of natural environments. Frontier in Psychology, 5, 1178).
  • In adults, regular group walks in nature have been linked with lower levels of depressive symptoms, lower levels of perceived stress and negative affect, as well as enhanced positive affect and mental well-being, in addition to other known benefits such as increased social interactions and physical activity. (Marselle, M.R., Irvine, K.N., & Warber, S.L. (2014) Examining Group Walks in Nature and Multiple Aspects of Well-Being: A Large-Scale Study. Ecopsychology, 6(3), 134-147).
  • In urban areas, long visits to green spaces has been linked with lower rates of depression, higher social cohesion and increased physical activity. (Shanahan, D.F., Bush, R., Gaston, K.J., Lin, B.B., Dean, J., Barber, E. & Fuller, R.A. (2016) Health Benefits of Nature Experiences Depend on Dose. Scientific Reports, 6).
  • Nature and green exercise was demonstrated to be most beneficial to young individuals with regards to positive changes in self-esteem. (Barton, J. & Pretty, J. (2010). What is the best dose of nature and green exercise for improving mental health? A multi-study analysis. Environmental Science and Technology, 44(10), 3947-3955).
  • Self-discipline and directed attention may increase with nearby access to nature for inner city children, especially females. Self-discipline increased with greater access to nature through bedroom window. (Taylor, A. F., Kuo, F. E. & Sullivan, W. C. (2002) Views of nature and self-discipline: Evidence from inner city children. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 22, 49-63).
  • Perceived neighbourhood greenness is more closely related to improved mental health than physical health. Recreational walking explained the relationship between greenness and physical health, whilst the relationship between greenness and mental health could only partly be explained by recreational walking and social coherence. (Sugiyama, T., Leslie, E., Giles-Corti, B. & Owen, N. (2008). Associations of neighbourhood greenness with physical and mental health: Do walking and social coherence and local social interaction explain the relationship? Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 62(5), e9-e9).
  • Even for already active individuals, green exercise is shown to improve both mood and self-esteem, regardless of the type of the type, intensity, or duration of the exercise. (Pretty, J., Peacock, J., Hine, R., Selleus, M., South, N. & Griffin, M. (2007). Green exercise in the UK countryside: Effects on health and psychological well-being, and implications for policy and planning. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 50(2), 211-231).
  • Natural environments may moderate the impact of stressful life events for children. (McCurdy, L. E., Winterbottom, K. E., Mehta, S. S., & Roberts, J. R. (2010). Using nature and outdoor activity to improve children’s health. Current problems in paediatric and adolescent health care40(5), 102-117).
  • Green space and wilderness programs may promote self-esteem, sense of self and improve behaviour in children. It increases creative play, which is an important means of cognitive, social and emotional development.  As such, green space and outdoor education programmes may result in enhanced attention and concentration skills and better grades in children. Finally, living near to green space buffered the effects of stressful life events on children’s psychological distress. (Taylor, A. F., Kuo, F. E., Spencer, C., & Blades, M. (2006). Is contact with nature important for healthy child development? State of the evidence. Children and their environments: Learning, using and designing spaces, 124).
  • A Scottish survey found that physical activity in natural environments is associated with a reduction in the risk of poor mental health. (Mitchell, R. (2013). Is physical activity in natural environments better for mental health than physical activity in other environments? Social Science & Medicine91, 130-134).
  • Walking in rural areas is shown to be more “restorative” than waking in urban areas. Furthermore, there was a greater “restorative” effect for individuals with poor mental health compared to those with good mental health. (Roe, J., & Aspinall, P. (2011). The restorative benefits of walking in urban and rural settings in adults with good and poor mental health. Health & place17(1), 103-113).

Specific Benefits to Mental Health:

  • A recent report from Natural England (documenting a study carried out in collaboration with the University of Essex and Mind, the mental health charity) shows that taking part in nature-based activities helps people who are suffering from mental health problems and can contribute to reducing levels of anxiety, stress, and depression. (Natural England, “A review of nature-based interventions for mental health care, NECR204, published 09/02/2016)
  • Meta-analysis demonstrates that short-exposure to nature and green exercise (activity in the presence of nature) showed overall improvement in both self-esteem and mood, with the presence of water increasing these effects. These effects were greatest for those with a mental illness. (Barton, J. & Pretty, J. (2010). What is the best dose of nature and green exercise for improving mental health? A multi-study analysis. Environmental Science and Technology, 44(10), 3947-3955).
  • Mental illness is less prevalent in individuals with more access to natural environments. This is strongest for depression and anxiety, but also for ADHD. (McCurdy, L. E., Winterbottom, K. E., Mehta, S. S., & Roberts, J. R. (2010). Using nature and outdoor activity to improve children’s health. Current problems in paediatric and adolescent health care40(5), 102-117).
  • Green space access reduced the number of females transitioning to mental ill health, identifying that access to green spaces may promote health. (van den Bosch, M. A., Östergren, P. O., Grahn, P., Skärbäck, E., & Währborg, P. (2015). Moving to serene nature may prevent poor mental health—results from a Swedish longitudinal cohort study. International journal of environmental research and public health12(7), 7974-7989).

General Resources:

  • Never before in history of mankind have humans spent so little time connecting with nature, and the consequences of this reduction in natural interactions are unknown. (Katcher, A., & Beck, A. (1987) Health and caring for living things. Anthrozoos, 1, 175 – 183).
  • Evidence suggests that mental health improves with contact with nature and ‘green spaces’. Further, environmental issues such as climate change and biodiversity loss are implicated in impacting human health. Increased biodiversity in urban environments (environmental change) may be linked by an ecological linkage mechanism resulting in improved health outcomes. (Dean, J., van Dooren, K. & Weinstein, P. (2011). Does biodiversity improve mental health in urban settings? Medical Hypotheses, 76, 877-880).
  • A systematic review of the literature on the link between access to urban green spaces and general health has been conducted. (Lee, A. C. K. & Maheswarau, R. (2010). The health benefits of urban green spaces: A review of the evidence. Journal of Public Health, 33(2), 212-222).