Exposure to green spaces is key to preventing anxiety and depression in young people, study finds

Media Relations Team, 12 January 2021

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A sunny and beautiful park with lots of green trees and a lake.

A study carried out by UWE Bristol researchers has found that exposure to green spaces and nature can benefit the mental health of young people.

Researchers reviewed a wide range of scientific studies and spoke to young people with lived experiences of anxiety and depression to explore the role that green spaces have in preventing anxiety and depression among people aged 14–24 living in urban settings.

The study, funded by the Wellcome Trust as part of their Mental Health Programme and Active Ingredients Commission, suggested that being in green spaces created ‘effortless mindfulness’; allowing young people to have a break from the distractions of modern life, such as noise, traffic and social media which are known to increase feelings of anger and anxiety. This is believed to have a similar effect to practising yoga, bringing calm and relaxation to young people which can help them to deal with stress and increase their resilience. It is estimated that one in five young adults in the UK have symptoms of depression or anxiety while depression is the fourth most common cause of illness and disability in 15 to 19-year-olds worldwide.

Researchers found that stress and anxiety levels among young people are reduced by between 14% to 19% after a 15-minute walk in an urban park compared with a street with traffic. While time spent in urban green spaces was found to be beneficial, the study found that the positive impact on wellbeing was greater and longer lasting when the time was spent in larger green spaces outside of cities, such as forests and woodland. For example, a 15-minute walk in a forest was found to reduce anxiety by 23% to 31% compared to a street with traffic. Furthermore, young people who have high levels of vegetation within 500 metres of their homes have a reduced risk of depression and anxiety.

As well as providing time away from the pressures of everyday life and an opportunity to engage with and appreciate nature, green spaces also enable social interaction and encourage physical activity which are both known to prevent depression.

Despite the numerous benefits, the study found a tendency for young people to underestimate the mental health benefits of their local green spaces which means many do not engage in behaviours that could improve their mood and well-being.

UWE Bristol Researcher, Dr Issy Bray, said: ‘‘The mental health of young people is a serious concern, especially as we face another national lockdown. The 14 –24 age group which we focused on in this study is particularly important as it is a formative period which spans both childhood and adulthood and is when many mental health conditions begin. The findings will be useful in supporting young people to look after and improve their mental health; encouraging more people to utilise their local green spaces, especially during this difficult winter period. The findings also provide increasing evidence of the benefits of green spaces, helping communities and local authorities to promote and protect their local parks and natural areas.’’

The UWE Bristol researchers behind the study have teamed up with the Mental Elf to communicate their findings over the coming weeks via blogs, podcasts, videos and the hashtag #ActiveIngredientsMH. The findings will also be disseminated to young people, policymakers, researchers and the general public via the Wellcome Trust. The full academic review paper is due to be published in Spring 2021. For more information on the study visit blogs.uwe.ac.uk/sustainable-planning-and-environments/category/health-and-wellbeing/

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