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Mental Health Alert: access to nature is crucial!

Topics: Human Wellbeing | Comments

Mental Health Alert: access to nature is crucial!

Parks and gardens and have always been part of human existence and long prized for their restorative and aesthetic qualities. As children, we were all told by our parents to go outside to play and get some fresh air. Adults instinctively felt that getting children outside was a healthy as well as an enjoyable activity. Indeed, they may have been onto something.

mental health2_credit Pauline Hopkins (Medium)
In recent times, the hypothesis that nature is good for us has become the subject of serious investigation. The potential benefits of green spaces for health and well-being has begun to be considered as not just an adjunct to health but as a core component of it.
Associate Professor Mardie Townsend, from Deakin University in Victoria, Australia, has been at the forefront of this new approach. She has spent more than a decade researching the links between human health and the environment. From her research, she has concluded that both environmental degradation (such as loss of biodiversity and climate change) and environmental deprivation (when people do not have access to nature) are detrimental to health.
Health benefits derived from time spent outside extend far beyond measures of physical fitness and cardiovascular function and also incorporate improvements to mental health. In 2006, Dr Townsend co-authored the ‘Feel Blue, Touch Green’ project which concluded that engaging in activities providing contact with nature was, at a minimum, a beneficial adjunct to other health care services. In 2010 she led the ‘Beyond Blue to Green’ literature review project, on behalf of beyondblue, an organisation that works to improve mental health in the Australian community. The project identified research from around the world confirming the benefits of contact with nature for mental health.
“The project demonstrated that hands-on nature contact can assist those experiencing anxiety and depression to gain confidence, build social networks and manage the symptoms of their condition more effectively,” she says.
“In the current context, in which one in four people will experience mental health problems during their lifetime, access to nature is crucial.”
Her work has also shown that the effects of contact with nature can benefit a range of patients experiencing both mental and physical illnesses.
“Hands-on nature contact through parks, gardens, pets and nature-based volunteering can be beneficial for a wide range of groups, including the elderly, those experiencing mental illness, children, those suffering from acquired brain injury, hospital patients and the broader population,” she says.
Contact with nature has been shown to have a calming influence, lowering stress levels, as determined by measurements of cortisol concentrations. Dr Townsend believes that this offers huge potential for further applicability to healthcare and laments that contact with nature is still currently seen as an offshoot from mainstream health care.
“So many aspects of our physical health ill-health are exacerbated by stress,” she says.
“As health care costs rise, due to a combination of an ageing population and advancing medical technology, we need to look more to preventative health care, and the supportive effects of nature contact for human health and wellbeing should be a key focus.”
In short, mental and physical health are closely connected and investigating and understanding these connections, and the benefits of nature contact, holds great promise for tackling both types of ailments in a holistic fashion.
Some health care organisations are taking steps to include nature-based therapies throughout their centres. She cites the example of the Austin Hospital Group in Melbourne, which has introduced a sensory garden at its Royal Talbot Rehabilitation Centre to assist those with neurological disorders, and the new Royal Children’s Hospital, also in Melbourne, where a meerkat enclosure was incorporated into the hospital design to ensure connection with nature.
The use of animals, especially dogs, has been introduced into aged care and rehabilitation settings, and although their use as part of acute care settings has only been explored to a limited degree, Dr Townsend believes there is more scope for animal therapies, with a growing body of evidence showing benefits, such as quicker recovery times for stroke and joint replacement patients when they are placed in hospital wards with a visiting dog.
Dr Townsend says research is also sorely needed to test the dose-response relationship, to determine how much contact with nature is needed to make a difference to health status. However it is clear that some contact is better than none—even if it is just a pot plant on the hospital bedside.
However, she does underscore that accessibility to green spaces is crucial, with Scandinavian and Dutch research demonstrating significant correlations between human health and access to nature. The benefits are greatest for those people living within 300 metres of good quality green spaces. Dr Townsend says such spaces provide the opportunity to switch off from the built environment.
“The need for access to green spaces may be met by a hierarchy of such spaces, including pocket parks, larger local parks that include spaces for both active and passive recreation, regional parks with a broader range of activities, and national parks offering access to more pristine nature.”
“In my view, all people should have access to the full range of green spaces, and infrastructure needs to be put in place to ensure that public transport options are available for accessing such spaces.”
The implementation of programs such as the Kids in Nature Network and the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation are a positive move towards including nature in children’s lives and helping them develop interests that will benefit their mental health in the long term.
“Hands-on nature contact makes us feel better socially, mentally, physically, spiritually.”
“Encouraging children to go outside and use their imaginations in play allows them to see the value of effort and imagination, to assess risk, and to view nature —and life itself—as a benefit and not a threat.”
She is confident that children who are involved in nature will become adults who care for and protect the environment, and who will understand its value to human life.
This will be important as climate change and loss of biodiversity pose a threat, not just to the planet but to our mental health as well.
“There is stress associated with the growing evidence of climate change all around us, and with the flow-on effects of that. People who are aware of the benefits of nature and sustainability, suffer enormous stress from the knowledge of what will happen with climate change.”
“We really need to act now, both to prevent environmental degradation and to educate the community at large and the health care sector in particular about the ‘green solution’ to human health issues,” she says.
Yet despite the challenges represented by imminent climate change, Dr Townsend remains positive about the future.
She is optimistic that studies into the health economics of parks will be carried out and will demonstrate the value of the ‘green solution’ to health care, and that partnerships between health care organisations and park agencies will strengthen the role of nature contact as a health care option.
“We need to maintain our hope and our efforts or else we do a disservice to our children.”

Sources:

The Feel Blue, Touch Green project was a collaboration between Deakin University, Barwon Health, Parks Victoria, Surf Coast Shire and ANGAIR. Funding for the project was provided by Alcoa. The Final Report, authored by Mardie Townsend and Matthew Ebden, is available at www.hphpcentral.com

See, for example, Roe, Jenny J. et al, 2013. ‘Green space and stress: evidence from cortisol measures in deprived urban communities,’ International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health vol 10, pp 4086-4103.

See, for example, “Tail of healing as dogs and cats help patients recover: Pet therapy introduced to lift spirits on Welsh hospital wards.” The Free Library. 2012 www.thefreelibrary.com . See also www.petsastherapy.org

Ulrich, R.S. 2002 ‘The therapeutic role of greenspace,’ paper presented at the Greenspace and Healthy Living National Conference, Manchester, 14 May.

Maas, J, Verheij, R., de Vries, S., Spreeuwenberg, P. and Schellevis, F., 2009. ‘Morbidity is related to a green living environment’, Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health vol. 63, pp. 967-973.

Relevant websites:

beyondblue: www.beyondblue.org.au

Kids In Nature Network: www.kidsinnaturenetwork.org.au

Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation: www.kitchengardenfoundation.org,au

 


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