Green spaces are good and they do good. Yet our latest Green Space Index finds that millions of people across Britain do not have access to green space close to where they live. In our latest guest blog, Shari McDaid, PhD, Head of Evidence and Impact at the Mental Health Foundation sets out the evidence behind the effects of nature on our mental health as well as addressing the current inequity of access to these benefits.
Why does spending time in nature improve our mental health? Many of us sense intuitively that going for a walk in the open air, visiting a local park or hanging out at the seafront can make us feel better, but new evidence helps to explain this belief in a way that has implications for us as individuals as well as for UK governments.
There has been evidence throughout the pandemic that spending time in nature has been an important support for many people. In the Foundation-led Coronavirus: Mental Health in the Pandemic Study among a representative sample of adults in the UK, spending time outdoors has been one of the key factors enabling people to cope with the stress of the Covid-19 pandemic, with 45% of adults saying that visiting green spaces, such as parks, helped them to cope throughout the pandemic.
The Mental Health Foundation's research report on nature [opens PDF], published in May, provides fresh insights. In it we found that people's relationship with nature - how much we notice, think about and appreciate our natural surroundings - is a critical factor in supporting good mental health and preventing distress.
It turns out that simply being in the presence of nature is not enough - the extent of benefit depends on how much we connect with nature, that is, how much we pay attention to and experience it. A strong connection with nature means feeling a close relationship or an emotional attachment to our natural surroundings. There are ways that we can develop our connectedness with nature. Activities that involve the senses can help to develop our connection with the natural world, as can activities where we feel emotions such as compassion, perceive beauty or find meaning in nature. For instance, we might notice its beauty by listening intently to birdsong or touching the bark of trees, smelling flowers or feeling the soil between our fingers whilst planting bulbs in the garden.
Research shows that people who are more connected with nature are usually happier in life and more likely to report feeling their lives are worthwhile. Nature can generate a multitude of positive emotions, such as calmness, joy, creativity and can facilitate concentration. Nature connectedness is also associated with lower levels of poor mental health, in particular lower depression and anxiety levels.
Our Revaluing Parks and Green Spaces research quantifies the wellbeing value associated with the frequent use of local parks and green spaces as well as estimating the annual savings to the NHS these spaces provide
Read the research
The positive mental health effects can arise from a wide variety of natural phenomena and sites, including green spaces such as parks, woodland or forests as well as blue spaces like rivers, wetlands, beaches or canals. Nature in this context also includes trees on an urban street, private gardens, verges and even indoor plants or window boxes.
However, the quality of the natural environment is important for gaining mental health benefits. Whether we are in rural or urban spaces, certain characteristics of nature are particularly important. These include the amount of green colour in trees, plants, and grass, the variety of plants and wildlife, and the level of serenity in landscapes so that they feel calm and quiet. Cleanliness, such as the absence of litter, is also a factor in how much our mental health benefits from spending time outside. Cleaner nature areas are linked to lower rates of depression.
Importantly, such high-quality green spaces are not equally available to everyone and this needs to be addressed. In a YouGov survey conducted on behalf of the Foundation in preparation for Mental Health Awareness Week, 2021, 11% of respondents said that it was fairly or very difficult to access nature whenever they wanted to. In the same survey, people living in urban areas were less likely than rural residents to connect with nature as much as they wanted, and people without gardens less likely than those with gardens.
There are a variety of barriers that can hinder people accessing nature. In our survey, the most frequently noted barrier to being close to nature was spending too much time at work or studying (26% of people), or another time factor, including being busy looking after family or with other caring responsibilities (11%). This highlights the need to ensure that people are able to have enough time to devote to connecting with nature.
Some demographic groups also face barriers to availing of nature to a greater extent than the general population. Young adults in particular may face many barriers to connecting with nature. In our survey, 48% of 18-24 years olds reported that time spent working or studying was a barrier to their enjoyment of nature, while 18% reported that a lack of people to spend time in nature with was a factor.
For some groups, including many women, younger people, disabled people and people from ethnic minorities, green and blue spaces may feel inaccessible or less enjoyable because they are perceived as unsafe - from risk of physical harm, sexual harassment, hate crime or discrimination. In our survey, 18% of respondents said that not feeling physically safe or safe from harm prevented them from enjoying nature in the way they would like. And there was a pronounced gender gap in the extent that fear prevented the enjoyment of nature. Not feeling physically safe/safe from harm had hindered 26% of UK women from enjoying nature, compared to 9% of UK men.
When we asked specifically about race discrimination, 23% of respondents from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds (not including non-British white groups) said that this had limited their ability to enjoy nature as they wished, compared to 1% of white British respondents.
Revaluing Parks and Green Spaces finds that those from ethnically diverse backgrounds value green space more highly. Yet the Green Space Index finds that these communities enjoy less green space provision.
Learn about the Index
People living with a disability or health condition often face accessibility barriers when natural spaces are not equipped with inclusion in mind or there is a lack of accessible routes. In our survey, 19% of people with long-term health conditions (LTCs) and disabilities said they were unable to physically access nature because of their health (or that of a family member). This rose to 37% of people who have a LTC/disability which limits their daily activities 'a lot'.
It is important to acknowledge that for many of these groups there is a double effect of this inequality, as these are the very groups who are at higher risk of developing a mental health problem.
The implication of our report is that society must take steps to support people's connectedness with nature. We need a society that facilitates regular and sustained engagement with nature within more biodiverse spaces to maintain population wellbeing and resilience. This has wider implications for the design of both our public and domestic places, from the need for networks of green corridors to help reverse the decline in biodiversity, to considering the cultural aspects of green cities.
The Foundation's policy recommendations speak to how we can develop such a society. Overall, it is important that the UK governments focus on connection with nature in the formation of all policies relating to nature and mental health. Connection with nature should be the measure of each policy's efficacy, rather than measuring the time spent in nature or the number of visits to nature.
Where not already in place, the UK governments should set ambitious interim and outcome targets to halt the decline of species and habitats in the UK by 2030. In Scotland there is already a recently reviewed biodiversity strategy and it will be important that the new Scottish Government fully implements this strategy.
The Green Space Index in 2021 finds that some areas of Britain have half the green space provision per person as others. Seven of nine English regions don't meet a minimum standard of provision.
Explore the full findings
Local government must play its part in ensuring that green and blue spaces are safe and accessible to all. Local authorities across the UK should strive to maintain and improve green spaces so that they can be accessed and enjoyed equally by everyone. Local authorities should seek opportunities to increase the amount of green space and the number of parks available to local residents, especially in areas that have poor existing provision.
The planning system and urban design can also be used to improve the visibility and availability of nature in every local area. Local authorities, planners, and urban designers can help by increasing the visibility and salience of incidental nature in local environments including hospital buildings and residential care settings.
Of course, as individuals we also can do as much as possible to connect with nature, knowing that it can improve our mental wellbeing. We can seek out nature in our local areas, noticing birdlife and tree foliage. When we are in contact with nature, we can make use of our five senses to enrich the connection. When we can, it's good to get out into nature; when we cannot, bring nature to us, even in small ways such as an indoor plant or an open window. And if we are able to, we can choose to exercise outdoors and thereby combine the benefits of exercise with those of nature. In these ways, as individuals we can acknowledge the importance of connectedness with nature and thereby build a society that ensures everyone can enjoy the environments that support their mental health.
Shari McDaid, PhD is Head of Evidence and Impact at the Mental Health Foundation.
Dr. Shari McDaid is Head of Evidence and Impact (Scotland & Northern Ireland) for the Mental Health Foundation. Formerly CEO of Mental Health Reform, the national coalition in Ireland advocating for reform of the mental health system. Dr. McDaid received a PhD from the Equality Studies Centre at University College Dublin, with a thesis entitled 'Power, Empowerment and User Involvement in the Public Mental Health Services in Ireland'.