Spending time in nature is believed to benefit people’s mental health. However, new research suggests that giving people with existing mental health conditions formal ‘green prescriptions’, may undermine some of the benefits.
An international research team led by the University of Exeter and published in the journal Scientific Reports, investigated whether contact with nature has the potential to help people with mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety, to manage their symptoms. They found that nature is associated with a number of benefits for these individuals, but only if they chose to visit these places themselves.
The research team collected data from more than 18,000 people in 18 different countries, as part of the EU Horizons 2020 funded BlueHealth project. A key aim was to understand why people feel motivated to spend time in nature, how often they visit, and how social pressure influences their emotional experiences during visits.
The findings suggest that whilst pressure to spend time outdoors can encourage visits, it can also undermine the potential emotional and wellbeing benefits of contact with nature.
Common mental health issues are the leading cause of disability worldwide, affecting approximately 17% of the world’s population each year. Although there is evidence that some people with these issues are using nature as part of their own symptom self-management, there was still much we didn’t not know about how widespread this was, or whether more formal ‘Green prescriptions’ from medical professional to spend time in nature could aid management and potentially recovery.
The research team were surprised to find that people with depression were already visiting nature as frequently as people with no mental health issues, while people with anxiety were visiting significantly more often. On the whole, both groups also tended to feel happy and reported low anxiety during these visits.
However, the benefits of nature seem to be undermined when visits were not by choice. The more pressure people felt to visit nature by presumably well-meaning others, the less motivated people were and the more anxious they felt.
The study’s full title is “Experiences of nature for people with common mental health disorders: Results from an 18 country cross-sectional study”, and is published in the journal Scientific Reports.