According to the World Health Organization, depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide. A new piece of research has investigated the effect our immediate surroundings may be having on this issue, looking at a few hypotheses related to the intuitive idea that we’re generally happier when we’re surrounding by greenery rather than deep in a man-made urban jungle. The study shows that there appears to be benefits to living near green urban areas in terms of mental health, and adds some credence to mental health treatment approaches such as “ecotherapy.”
Researchers from Britain used data from an existing survey to determine the long-term effect of living near green spaces such as public parks and gardens on individuals’ mental health. They identified just over 1,000 participants and split them into two groups, ones who had moved from a less green area to a greener area and those who had done the reverse. The participants had five consecutive years of mental health data and all moved home between the second and third years of the study period. Factors known to have an impact on general mental health (such as socioeconomic status) were controlled for mathematically, and researchers aimed to determine what effect, if any, the move itself had on the participants’ mental health.
Urban Green Areas Make You Happier
When the findings for each group were compared with the baseline scores before the move, the members of the group that moved to greener areas had consistently better mental health. This effect continued for all three years following the move, suggesting that the effect is more than just a transient improvement; moving to greener areas really does seem to lead to better mental health all around. In comparison, those who moved to less green areas showed worse mental health in the year before the move, and their scores returned to the baseline level afterward. This is an interesting result and although the reduction in mental health scores before moving to a less green area is puzzling, it’s clear that only those who moved to greener areas saw overall improvements in mental health. The researchers argued that this finding is consistent with a “shifting baseline” hypothesis; in other words, your baseline of mental health gets better if you move to somewhere generally greener.
Ecotherapy: A Cost-Effective Mental Health Treatment?
The natural question after hearing about this finding is, why would greener urban areas lead to an improvement in mental health? There is no real answer to this question, but there are some fairly compelling ideas. One is that depression turns the mind inward, examining and criticizing itself, feeding on itself and creating a downward spiral in mood. Nature, with its abundant wildlife, constant action and beauty, forces us to step outside of ourselves and take notice of our surroundings. Or you could put forward the broader argument that green surroundings are more natural for us as a species, and that it therefore makes sense that we’re more content when we aren’t entirely trapped by the gray asphalt of the city. Regardless of theory, many mental health experts and charities support the practical application of this idea, called ecotherapy. In short, this involves things such as gardening, growing food and looking after the environment; it’s light, community-based work in the great outdoors. One of the most unique elements of the approach is the “leave your diagnosis at the gate” approach espoused by many practitioners, and although there is evidence of improvement in both mental health and physical activity levels in those attending the therapy, the work is thought to go on “under the surface.” Men traditionally don’t engage with mental health services as much as women, but trials of this approach have seen slightly more interest from men than women, suggesting that it might be more acceptable to those unwilling to explicitly address mental health issues. Alcohol and drug abusers claim that ecotherapy has helped them learn new skills and connect with peers, and there is a general consensus from across subgroups that the process improves self-esteem and confidence. The physical elements of the therapy can also be taken at any pace, leaving the approach open to people regardless of activity level, and makes it a viable option for those with physical disabilities who also struggle with mental health. Arguably the most attractive element from a political perspective is that the approach is cost-effective, with evidence that it helps the unemployed get back into work and reduces strain on mental health services.
What Can We Learn?
Although the findings may seem simplistic, the study — and other research into the effects of ecotherapy — can teach us an important lesson: Don’t ignore the natural world; there really does appear to be a psychological benefit to appreciating greenery, nature and urban parks. It might sound cliché, but the next time you’re feeling down, taking a walk around a local park, sitting on a bench and watching the ebb and flow of nature could really cheer you up. Even if it doesn’t, it’s completely free and you have nothing to lose.