By Roberta Attanasio
The toll that the COVID-19 pandemic is taking on mental health, for both children and adults, is unequivocal. An article published in The New York Times in February 2021 highlights a dire situation: “Since the first coronavirus case was confirmed in the United States more than a year ago, the number of people in need of mental health services has surged. But many say that they are languishing on waiting lists, making call after call only to be turned away, with affordable options tough to find. Providers, who have long been in short supply, are stretched thin.”
According to an article published at about the same time in the scientific journal Nature, “The devastation of the pandemic—millions of deaths, economic strife and unprecedented curbs on social interaction—has already had a marked effect on people’s mental health. Researchers worldwide are investigating the causes and impacts of this stress, and some fear that the deterioration in mental health could linger long after the pandemic has subsided.” Citing Marcella Rietschel at the Central Institute for Mental Health in Mannheim, Germany, the article points out that the distress in the pandemic probably stems from people’s limited social interactions, tensions among families in lockdown together, and fear of illness.
In the middle of this gloom, here comes a little piece of good news. Research shows that nature around one’s home may help mitigate some of the negative mental health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic—and suggests that urban green spaces have great potential to be used as a “nature‐based solution” for increasing the wellbeing of urban populations.
The study (A room with a green view: the importance of nearby nature for mental health during the COVID‐19 pandemic) was published this month in the journal Ecological Applications and is based on an online questionnaire survey completed by 3,000 adults in Tokyo, Japan—one of the world’s largest cities.
Researchers quantified the link between nature around the home, and five mental health outcomes—depression, life satisfaction, subjective happiness, self-esteem, and loneliness. They found that people who spent time outdoors in green spaces had more positive mental health outcomes than people who didn’t spend time in nature. Notably, even looking at green spaces from a window improved mental health.
In their article, the researchers state: “Accounting for sociodemographic and lifestyle variables, we found that the frequency of greenspace use and the existence of green window views from within the home was associated with increased levels of self‐esteem, life satisfaction, and subjective happiness and decreased levels of depression, anxiety, and loneliness. Our findings suggest that a regular dose of nature can contribute to the improvement of a wide range of mental health outcomes.”
The positive wellbeing effects of spending time in nature go beyond what we are experiencing now with the pandemic. Lead author Masashi Soga said in a press release: “Our results suggest that nearby nature can serve as a buffer in decreasing the adverse impacts of a very stressful event on humans. Protecting natural environments in urban areas is important not only for the conservation of biodiversity, but also for the protection of human health.”