It’s that time again, it’s Mental Health Awareness Week, and for 2021 the theme is nature. Nature has become a lot more important over the last year due to the pandemic. I think we’ve all embraced nature a little more, hanging out and exercising in parks while the gyms, pubs, and restaurants have been off the table. This is why the Mental Health Foundation choose nature as this year’s topic, as their own research showed that 50% of adult Brits coped with the pandemic by visiting green spaces. So let’s talk about wellbeing and nature.
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According to the Mental Health Foundation, approximately 13% of UK households don’t have access to a garden, I know I don’t. I’ve not had access to a garden since about 2008, and until the pandemic hit, I hadn’t given it much thought. Since the pandemic, I’d do anything for my own private garden to just get some pleasant outside time where I don’t have to worry about other people.
The benefits of nature don’t just come from green spaces either, they can come from blue spaces (aquatic) as well (American Psychological Association), and although remote/biodiverse spaces might be more helpful, city parks still come with the benefit of nature. Personally, I’m not a fan of the water, but I don’t mind an uncrowded beach from time to time.
As Mind put it, we all have different experiences of nature and our own reasons for wanting to connect with it more, or not, as the case may be, so different people will get something different from one activity compared to others. For example, the white members of my family get something from sunbathing on the beach. I, as someone born with brown skin, don’t get anything from it at all.
The Wellbeing Benefits Of Nature
Over the years, there has been a growing body of empirical evidence that’s showing us the value of nature for our mental health and overall wellbeing (Bratman et al., 2019). Exposure to nature, whether through your own garden, a walk in the park, or a hiking trip through the forest, has been linked to a host of mental health benefits (American Psychological Association). For example, a lot of people can get inspiration from nature, allowing them to be more creative, inspiring paintings, drawings, photography, and even writing (WWF and the Mental Health Foundation).
This supports the claims of the American Psychological Association, which stated that spending time in nature benefits us through improved moods, lower stress, improved attention, reduced risk of mental illness, and even had positive effects on our empathy and cooperation.
Just feeling connected to nature can produce similar benefits to our wellbeing, as it doesn’t appear to matter how long we spend outdoors, at least according to the American Psychological Association. However, we might not even need the real thing to reap some of the benefits. Schertz and Berman (2019) found that exposure to both simulated and real-world natural environments can improve performance in working memory, attentional-control tasks, and cognitive flexibility.
I can certainly see how having access to green spaces can help, but it didn’t help me with my mental health growing up. But then I was subjected to relentless racial abuse throughout my childhood. However, having access to fields to play football and other things always gave us something to do and kept me in good physical health, at least.
Me And Nature
I’ve never really been one for nature, especially when you have to deal with insects. If you ask me to go on a nature walk with you, I’d definitely say no. However, since the pandemic started, I’ve found myself going for a walk in the local woods with my partner and their friend and having a mini picnic. I’ve also attended a gathering and picnic in a park with friends when the lockdown rules allowed us to, with another such gathering scheduled for next month with another set of friends. I’m also trying to arrange another gathering in a park with a different set of friends as well.
As such, I’m now the owner of a picnic blanket, which I highly recommend if you want to enjoy the outdoors with food and friends. The picnic blanket also helps keep ants and the like from having easy access to your food and stopping you from getting dirty. I also bought an insulated bottle so I can keep my drink cold.
Due to the pandemic, I’ve never wanted a garden more. To just have a nice private green space I could be in when we couldn’t even meet up with people would have been great. Existing in a single room for the length of the pandemic hasn’t been fun, just me and four walls to keep me company. I did create a graveyard terrarium during that time though, which you can see in some of the photos I took for my article ‘Give Your Inner Demons A Piece Of Your Mind‘, if you want to check out my graveyard terrarium. So that added a tiny bit of nature to my room.
What Can You Do With Nature For Your Mental Health?
So what can you do to get a dose of this nature wellness malarky? I hear you ask, hopefully. Well, there are a number of ways you can give yourself a nature experience for your wellness, which includes interactions with nature and perceptions of the natural world (Bratman et al., 2019). Using your senses, you can give yourself such experiences by looking out the window and taking in the nature you see, as well as looking at photos and videos of nature.
So, why not take a moment now and look out of your nearest window and see what natural beauty you can see? It could be a bird on the house opposite you, flowers in a garden, or even the trees planted along the road. It’s all nature.
To help get you connected to nature, Mind has provided a list of nature ideas you could try, from gardening, bringing plants into your home, star gazing, bird watching, and going on a litter-picking walk, click here to find out more. The Mental Health Foundation also has some tips, which you can find by clicking here.
Where I’m currently volunteering, they’ve set up a nest-watching channel to help us connect with nature more, but we weren’t the only ones watching nature through a webcam. According to the Mental Health Foundation, websites with webcams showing wildlife footage saw hits increase by over 2000%. So why not get out your phone and start taking some pictures of wildlife and nature, you never know, maybe you’ll be entering wildlife photographer of the year someday.
You could journal about your nature experiences as well, and to aid in this, the Mental Health Foundation has created a free nature journal you can download. If you’re interested in getting your hands on this journal, then you can visit their site to download it by clicking here.
However, as Cox et al., (2017) pointed out, access to nature isn’t going to be a magic bullet for all our mental wellbeing needs, but such access gives us a better chance of being more mentally resilient. However, it’s just another thing to add to our toolbox that could help with our mental health.
The Nature Of City Life
I love city life, but often such urban environments lack access to green or even blue spaces. According to a study by Engemann, Pedersen, Arge, Tsirogiannis, Mortensen, and Svenning (2019), this could be having a negative impact on our mental health. The study in question was a nationwide study conducted on 943,027 Danish people between 1985-2003 who had to be living in Denmark on their 10th birthday. Using the data gathered during this study, they found that children who grew up with poor access to green spaces had a higher risk (55%) of developing a mental health condition, independent from other known risk factors like socioeconomic status. Therefore, access to and the use of green spaces during child development can help protect against adult mental illnesses developing.
As the world’s urbanised areas grow, human contact with nature is declining, which means decisions need to be made now so that these urban developments and expansions factor in nature before so we can preserve and enhance opportunities for nature experiences (Bratman et al., 2019). It’s a lot easier to build green spaces as you build your buildings, rather than having to fit in nature after you’ve built them.
Furthermore, access to green spaces often depends on socioeconomic factors, such as housing prices and costs of rent, this might be a factor in why people in the UK who belong to the lowest 20% in household income are 2-3 times as likely to develop a mental health condition (Marmot et al., 2010). Therefore, to promote mental health and good quality of life, urban planning and policies would benefit from factoring in access to green spaces on the population’s mental health and wellbeing Engemann, Pedersen, Arge, Tsirogiannis, Mortensen, and Svenning (2019).
A study by Cox et al. (2017) found that even a low-level amount of nature in a neighbourhood is associated with better mental health, meaning a reduction in poor mental health could be achieved with a minimum threshold of vegetation cover. Thus, if this bare minimum was applied to all urban areas, that would help give us back our connection to nature and improve our mental health outcomes.
Therefore, we should all be putting pressure on those who control our urban landscapes to incorporate nature and mental health into their designs, using the best available evidence to make the most informed decision that will affect us for decades to come (Bratman et al., (2019).
Past Mental Health Awareness Week’s
If you’d like to check out my previous Mental Health Awareness Week articles, then click the links below:
As always, leave your feedback in the comments section below. Also, feel free to share your experiences with how nature affected your mental health and about wellbeing and nature in general in the comments section below as well. Don’t forget to bookmark my site and if you want to stay up-to-date with my blog, then sign up for my newsletter below. Alternatively, get push notifications for new articles by clicking the red bell icon in the bottom right corner.
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Unwanted Life readers.
Bratman, G. N., Anderson, C. B., Berman, M. G., Cochran, B., de Vries, S., Flanders, J., Folke, C., Frumkin, H., Gross, J. J., Hartig, T., Kahn Jr., P. H., Kuo, M., Lawler, J. J., Levin, P. S., Lindahl, T., Meyer-Lindenberg, A., Mitchell, R., Ouyang, Z., Roe, J., Scarlett, L., Smith, J. R., van den Bosch, M., Wheeler, B. W., White, M. P., Zheng, H., & Daily, G. C. (2019). Nature and mental health: An ecosystem service perspective. Science Advances, 5(7). Retrieved from https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/5/7/eaax0903 and https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/advances/5/7/eaax0903.full.pdf.
Cox, D. T., Shanahan, D. F., Hudson, H. L., Plummer, K. E., Siriwardena, G. M., Fuller, R. A., Anderson, K., Hancock, S., & Gaston, K. J. (2017). Doses of neighborhood nature: the benefits for mental health of living with nature. BioScience, 67(2), 147-155. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1093/biosci/biw173 and https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/article/67/2/147/2900179.
Engemann, E., Pedersen, C. B., Arge, L., Tsirogiannis, C., Mortensen, P. B., & Svenning, J. (2019). Residential green space in childhood is associated with lower risk of psychiatric disorders from adolescence into adulthood. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(11) 5188-5193. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1807504116 and https://www.pnas.org/content/116/11/5188.
Marmot, M., Allen, J., Goldblatt, P., Boyce, T., McNeish, D., Grady, M., & Geddes, I. (2010). Fair society, healthy lives: Strategic review of health inequalities in England post-2010. Retrieved from https://www.parliament.uk/globalassets/documents/fair-society-healthy-lives-full-report.pdf.
Schertz, K. E., & Berman, M. G. (2019). Understanding Nature and Its Cognitive Benefits. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 28(5), 496–502. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721419854100 and https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0963721419854100.