Nav: Home

How to consider nature's impact on mental health in city plans

July 24, 2019

Almost one in five adults in the U.S. lives with a mental illness. That statistic is similar worldwide, with an estimated 450 million people currently dealing with a mental or neurological disorder. Of those, only about a third seek treatment.

Interacting with nature is starting to be recognized as one way to improve mental health. A number of scientific studies have shown that nature experiences may benefit people's psychological well-being and cognitive function. But it has been difficult to find ways to quantify these benefits in a useful manner for cities or organizations that want to integrate nature to improve mental health.

Now, an international team led by the University of Washington and Stanford University has created a framework for how city planners and municipalities around the world can start to measure the mental health benefits of nature and incorporate those into plans and policies for cities and their residents. The study will appear July 24 in Science Advances.

"Thinking about the direct mental health benefits that nature contact provides is important to take into account when planning how to conserve nature and integrate it into our cities," said Greg Bratman, lead author and an assistant professor at the UW School of Environmental and Forest Sciences. "The purpose of this paper is to provide a conceptual model of one way we can start to think about doing this."

The study brought together more than two dozen leading experts in the natural, social and health sciences who study aspects of how nature can benefit human well-being. Their first step was to establish a baseline, collective agreement regarding the understanding of the impacts of nature experience on aspects of cognitive functioning, emotional well-being and other dimensions of mental health.

"In hundreds of studies, nature experience is associated with increased happiness, social engagement, and manageability of life tasks, and decreased mental distress," said senior author Gretchen Daily, faculty director at the Stanford Natural Capital Project. "In addition, nature experience is linked to improved cognitive functioning, memory and attention, imagination and creativity, and children's school performance. These links span many dimensions of human experience, and include a greater sense of meaning and purpose in life."

While this line of study is still emerging, experts agree that nature can reduce risk factors for some types of mental illnesses and improve psychological well-being. They also agree that opportunities for nature experiences are dwindling for many people around the world because of urban growth.

"For millennia, many different cultures, traditions, and religious and spiritual practices have spoken directly to our deep relationship with nature. And more recently, using other sets of tools from psychology, public health, landscape architecture and medicine, evidence has been steadily gathering in this emerging, interdisciplinary field," Bratman said.

The study outlines how city planners, landscape architects, developers and others could eventually anticipate the mental health impacts of decisions related to the environment.

Many governments already consider this with regard to other aspects of human health. For example, trees are planted in cities to improve air quality or reduce urban heat island effects, and parks are built in specific neighborhoods to encourage physical activity. But these actions don't usually directly factor in the mental health benefits that trees or a restored park might provide.

"We have entered the urban century, with two-thirds of humanity projected to be living in cities by 2050. At the same time, there is an awakening underway today, to the many values of nature and the risks and costs of its loss," Daily said. "This new work can help inform investments in livability and sustainability of the world's cities."

The research team built a conceptual model that can be used to make meaningful, informed decisions about environmental projects and how they may impact mental health. It includes four steps for planners to consider: elements of nature included in a project, say at a school or across the whole city; the amount of contact people will have with nature; how people interact with nature; and how people may benefit from those interactions, based on the latest scientific evidence.

The researchers hope this tool will be especially useful in considering the possible mental health repercussions of adding -- or taking away -- nature in underserved communities.

"If the evidence shows that nature contact helps to buffer against negative impacts from other environmental predictors of health, then access to these landscapes can be considered a matter of environmental justice. We hope this framework will contribute to this discussion," Bratman said. "Eventually, it could be developed and potentially used to help address health disparities in underserved communities."
-end-
Other University of Washington co-authors are Howard Frumkin, Peter Kahn, Joshua Lawler and Phillip Levin. Other Stanford University co-authors are James Gross, Christopher Anderson and Jeffrey Smith. See the paper for a full list of co-authors.

This study was funded by the Natural Capital Project, John Miller, the Doug Walker Endowed Professorship, Craig McKibben and Sarah Merner, the Marianne and Marcus Wallenberg Foundation, the Winslow Foundation, the George Rudolf Fellowship Fund, the Victoria and David Rogers Fund, and the Mr. & Mrs. Dean A. McGee Fund.

For more information, contact Bratman at bratman@uw.edu or 206-543-7591 and Daily at gdaily@stanford.edu or 650-723-9452. Hannah Hickey
University of Washington
206-543-2580
hickeyh@uw.edu

University of Washington

Related Mental Health Articles:

The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health: Mental health harms related to very frequent social media use in girls might be due to exposure to cyberbullying, loss of sleep or reduced physical activity
Very frequent use of social media may compromise teenage girls' mental health by increasing exposure to bullying and reducing sleep and physical exercise, according to an observational study of almost 10,000 adolescents aged 13-16 years studied over three years in England between 2013-2015, published in The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health journal.
Can Facebook improve your mental health?
Contrary to popular belief, using social media and the internet regularly could improve mental health among adults and help fend off serious psychological distress, such as depression and anxiety, finds a new Michigan State University study.
A gut feeling for mental health
The first population-level study on the link between gut bacteria and mental health identifies specific gut bacteria linked to depression and provides evidence that a wide range of gut bacteria can produce neuroactive compounds.
Mental health care increasing most among those with less distress
A new study shows that more Americans are getting outpatient mental health care and the rate of serious psychological distress is decreasing.
On-again, off-again relationships might be toxic for mental health
A researcher from the University of Missouri says that the pattern of breaking up and getting back together can impact an individual's mental health and not for the better.
Could mental health apps lead to overdiagnosis?
Mental health app marketing commonly presents mental health problems as ubiquitous and individuals as responsible for mental wellbeing; overdiagnosis and denial of the social factors related to mental health could result.
Student-run mental health education efforts may improve college mental health climate
Studies estimate that 20 percent to 36 percent of college students cope with some form of serious psychological distress, yet only about a third receive any services despite the fact they often have access to on-campus help.
How mental health diagnosis should be more collaborative
New research published in The Lancet Psychiatry finds that mental health diagnosis should be more collaborative.
Self-rating mental health as 'good' predicts positive future mental health
Researchers have found that when a person rates their current mental health as 'positive' despite meeting criteria for a mental health problem, it can predict good mental health in the future, even without treatment.
Medicating for mental health
University of Guelph researchers found evidence that a single bout of exhaustive exercise protects against acute olanzapine-induced hyperglycemia.
More Mental Health News and Mental Health Current Events

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2019.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

In & Out Of Love
We think of love as a mysterious, unknowable force. Something that happens to us. But what if we could control it? This hour, TED speakers on whether we can decide to fall in — and out of — love. Guests include writer Mandy Len Catron, biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, musician Dessa, One Love CEO Katie Hood, and psychologist Guy Winch.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#543 Give a Nerd a Gift
Yup, you guessed it... it's Science for the People's annual holiday episode that helps you figure out what sciency books and gifts to get that special nerd on your list. Or maybe you're looking to build up your reading list for the holiday break and a geeky Christmas sweater to wear to an upcoming party. Returning are pop-science power-readers John Dupuis and Joanne Manaster to dish on the best science books they read this past year. And Rachelle Saunders and Bethany Brookshire squee in delight over some truly delightful science-themed non-book objects for those whose bookshelves are already full. Since...
Now Playing: Radiolab

An Announcement from Radiolab