Visiting natural settings such as parks, forests, and beaches is associated with improved mental health, according to a large international study. The new findings have been published in the journal Scientific Reports.
“We’ve been exploring the relationships between time spent in around water environments (rivers, lakes the sea) and psychological health for over a decade but all of our work was conducted in the United Kingdom so we didn’t know whether these findings generalized across different countries and cultures,” said study author Mathew P. White, a social and environmental psychologist at the University of Exeter Medical School.
“We were lucky enough to get a grant from the European Union to explore these issues and this paper is one output from a large survey conducted across 18 countries to explore these international comparisons. The larger aim was to see whether better urban planning and management could integrate water into cityscapes to benefit mental and physical health while also reducing the risks (flooding, drowning, etc.) but first of all we needed to see what the benefits might be.”
For their new study, the researchers examined data from 16,307 individuals who had completed an online survey between June 2017 and April 2018. They found that people who visited green spaces more often tended to also report having better psychological well-being and less mental distress. The same was true of those who visited inland and coastal blue spaces. The findings held even after controlling for factors such as age, education, income, relationship status, and physical activity.
“It’s not going to surprise anyone — especially after the last 12 months — but spending time in natural settings is good for mental health. This is well established already but like I say never before in such a large international study — where we basically found pretty similar findings across country — with some differences (e.g. coastal visits were more strongly associated with mental health in countries such as France),” White told PsyPost.
“The real importance of the study was in showing how large these effects were relative to other things we also know are important to mental health such as income, family relationships, long-standing illness, etc.”
The research team had previously found that people with depression tended to visit nature as frequently as people with no mental health issues, while people with anxiety were visiting nature significantly more often. But the benefits of visiting green/blue spaces seemed to be undermined when the visits were not by choice.
“When paired with an earlier paper from the same dataset we published last year (Tester Jones et al., 2020) we see that people with depression and anxiety are high users of nature, possibly as self-management — though we are cautious about ‘green/blue prescriptions’ if they are not linked to self-determined preferences.”
The new findings are in line with several longitudinal studies. For example, a study published in the journal of Environmental Science & Technology, which followed people over a five year period, found that people who moved to greener areas experienced an immediate improvement in mental health that was sustained for at least 3 years after they moved.
“But, of course, even longitudinal data still has problems and I continue to worry whether these effects are still due to richer, healthier people being able to afford to live in nicer areas and have time to spend in nicer places,” White said.
“Fortunately, other data suggest that the benefits are actually most likely to occur for the poorest in society. If this is true, this is the real message for health professional and planners — perhaps we can reduce mental health inequalities through better urban planning and improved access to high quality green and blue spaces.”
The study, “Associations between green/blue spaces and mental health across 18 countries“, was authored by Mathew P. White, Lewis R. Elliott, James Grellier, Theo Economou, Simon Bell, Gregory N. Bratman, Marta Cirach, Mireia Gascon, Maria L. Lima, Mare Lõhmus, Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, Ann Ojala, Anne Roiko, P. Wesley Schultz, Matilda van den Bosch, and Lora E. Fleming.