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Natural Spaces & Mental Health

Strong mental health is vital to our ability to think, emote, interact with others, earn a living, and enjoy life. Keeping mentally healthy is an incredibly important aspect of our lives. The World Health Organization defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”

Even though staying mentally healthy is so important, mental health is still a massive issue in the United States. Mental health disorders are one of the most common disorders that we face with them affecting almost everyone at some point in their lives. In the United States alone about 20% of Americans experience some sort of mental health disorder each year. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, in 2018 suicide was the 10th leading cause of death in our country, with suicides more than double the amount of homicides. A report by the World Economic Forum and the Harvard School of Public Health has projected that by 2030 the economic cost of mental disorders is to be $6 trillion dollars. This will be greater than the combined costs of cancer, diabetes, and repository illnesses. To combat depression and improve mental health scientists and doctors have been increasingly studying ways to combat this rise by exploring the positive effects that nature has on our mental well being.

To understand how natural space has a positive effect on our lives we first need to take a look at what our modern lives do to our brains. Throughout our personal and professional lives, we have to constantly focus our attention on crucial information and tasks. As explained by Dr. Melissa Marselle, when we maintain that focus for long periods of time, while blocking out distractions, we end up overburdening our mental capacity for conscious attention. This focus is maintained when out in our urban environment while navigating our way through the world on foot or by automated means of transportation. Our directed attention is responsible for our ability to process information, plan, and solve problems. According to the University of Washington, our brains are unable to maintain this intense focus constantly and so they begin to fatigue affecting crucial mental abilities. These include the ability to solve problems, cope with stress, and manage impulsive behavior and irritability with others.

Mental fatigue can become a continuous aspect in our lives compounding day by day, especially for those in heavily urban areas. One way nature helps with this mental fatigue is explained by the Attention Restoration Theory. The first aspect of this restorative process is through the use of a type of attention that does not require any direct conscious effort called involuntary attention. Natural spaces are full of stimuli that attract this involuntary attention. When our brain picks up on these stimuli it allows our minds to rest, reflect, and recover. These stimuli can include simple things like watching a sunset, hearing rustling leaves and the sound of flowing water. When our brains are focused on these stimuli it allows for reflection to occur. Reflection allows us to think about situations going on in our lives, our goals or priorities, and helps us to gain insights from our memories and experiences. Moments of reflection further helps our minds to recover while improving our mental resilience. Natural environments are some of the best areas for allowing our brains to quiet down and re-energize.

With natural spaces providing ample stimuli for our involuntary attention, something as simple as just taking a walk out in a natural environment can be incredibly beneficial to our health. There have been numerous scientific studies done to show how exposure to a natural space leads to positive mental health benefits and outcomes. These benefits could include boosts in self-esteem, stress reduction, treatment of depression, increasing mental resilience, and many others. According to Jo Barton, these effects can even occur just by having a view of a green space from a window at work, being out within the space itself, and even if you are exercising in a green space. According to You can see the results of these studies being administered even in the workplace as offices are increasingly having more green elements implemented into them resulting in workers having more patience, less frustration, less absenteeism, and an increase in enthusiasm thus resulting in an increase in efficiency and productivity.

A study by Danish researchers of the Aarhus University in Denmark was conducted involving over 900,000 children with their results finding that those who grew up with little to no amounts of green space had up to a 55% risk of developing a mental disorder. This increase of risk is independent of other risk factors as green spaces are important for childhood development, cognitive skills, and for their creativity and intellectual development. This study by Melissa Marselle, Sara Warber, and Katherine Irvine have found that life events have less of an influence on children’s distress and their self-esteem when living near a green space. Access to natural space is beneficial to everyone, no matter their age.

In order for us to receive the benefits of these natural spaces it requires us to have access to them. However, this is becoming a problem as the world's population is increasingly moving into urban areas. We have shifted to over 50% of the global population now living in cities versus rural areas. This trend is generally due to those seeking more job opportunities, educational access, and supportive health and human services, but has the trade off of largely decreased access to nature. Living in a city without a close natural space can lead to less time enjoying outdoor recreation, increased sedentary activities, and increased time spent looking at our phones, computers, and TVs. This, in turn, can adversely affect mental health. Professor Richard Florida explains that access to green and natural spaces in cities has become more of a privilege with communities of color and those with lower income having to live further from them. Ensuring equal access to green spaces in order for everyone to reap the health benefits they deserve will take widespread community action as well as shifting urban planning practices. Designers can work on implementing other ways of adding green spaces to cities through incorporating more trees and planters, community gardens and green roofs, and other green features in order to transform our current cities and neighborhoods to a more healthy living space for all. The more green we add the more we can ensure urban populations gain the mental benefits of having green spaces around them.

OCH Volunteers conducting habitat restoration in a beautiful wetland habitat. Photo by Melody Aminian.

We have been living through an incredibly difficult time as we continue to live our life around this pandemic. If the stress of this situation begins to wear you down, schedule some time to get out into nature and allow your mind to unwind and relax. It could be greatly beneficial to your health, even if it is just for a short moment. If you find yourself wanting to incorporate more natural environments into your life and don’t know where to start, OC Habitats offers ample opportunities for you to get started through our nature hikes and restoration programs.

As we continue moving forward in the journey that is our lives, do not hesitate to take advantage of the natural environment around you in order to keep yourself mentally healthy. Sometimes all it takes is just a small walk outside to bring a smile upon your face.

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