New review finds that better access to green spaces has a beneficial impact on anxiety and depression in young people, aged 14 to 24 years.

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By Issy Bray, Danni Sinnett, Rebecca Reece, Rob Hayward and Faith Martin

Mental health of young people is a serious concern, particularly since the Covid-19 pandemic which has had a massive impact on the lives of young people.

The Wellcome Trust commissioned 30 reviews over Summer 2020 to better understand the ‘active ingredients’ for tackling high rates of anxiety and depression in young people, aged 14 to 24 years. You can read more about their programme and the other projects here: https://wellcome.org/what-we-do/our-work/mental-health-transforming-research-and-treatments. Our team was commissioned to conduct a review of the evidence for better access to green spaces as a means to prevent anxiety and depression in young people. This is a multidisciplinary team bringing together public health (Dr Issy Bray, Dr Rob Hayward, Centre for Public Health and Wellbeing https://www1.uwe.ac.uk/hls/research/publichealthandwellbeing.aspx), green infrastructure and planning (Dr Danni Sinnett, Centre for Sustainable Planning and Environments) and psychology (Dr Faith Martin, University of Coventry, Rebecca Reece, Centre for Public Health and Wellbeing). This blogpost is drawn from the summary findings we submitted to the Wellcome Trust as one of the deliverables for the project.

Evidence shows that exposure to green space and having a connection with nature can benefit mental health. However, reviews of the evidence have tended to focus on children or adults. Our review looked at the evidence specifically for 14-24 year olds, and tried to better understand how green space can reduce the risk of anxiety and depression for this age group.

What we did

  • A review of a wide range of scientific research explored the role of exposure to green space in preventing anxiety and depression among young people aged 14-24 living in urban settings
  • This evidence was used to develop a model to help us understand the relationship between green space and mental health for this age group
  • Young people with lived experience of anxiety or depression were consulted about the design of our study and the model.

What we found and what this means?

  • There’s strong evidence that walking or being in a green space like a forest or park improves mood and reduces feelings of anxiety for young people aged 14-24
  • This is likely to be due to the restorative (psychologically healing) properties of green spaces. Time away from noise/work/people/social media enables young people to notice and appreciate nature, which encourages mindfulness and increases resilience to cope with stress
  • Although even short walks (15 minutes) in a green space are beneficial, there is some evidence that larger parks are more helpful, and excursions to natural environments outside the city also have psychological benefits
  • Green spaces also enable social interaction and physical activity, both of which are likely to prevent depression
  • Young people tend to under-estimate the mental health benefits of their local green space, and therefore do not use it as much as they might to improve their mood.

These findings are summarised in the infographic below.

Infographic summarising the main findings of the review

What types of studies were included?

Many of the studies included in our review were experiments which involved young people walking through a green environment (e.g. forest, park) or an urban environment. These studies compared mood and feelings of anxiety in the two groups. They tended to be carried out in Asian countries with students as participants. Some studies compared outcomes for young people before and after they completed an outdoor activity programme (e.g. a hike in the wilderness). We also included non-experimental studies that assessed the relationship between levels of neighbourhood vegetation and various outcomes, including mental health.

What were the problems with the studies?

The participants in the experimental studies were not representative of all young people aged 14-24 (e.g. often students), and some of them were based on quite small numbers of people. Few studies had depression or anxiety disorders as the main outcomes of interest, and few studies measured outcomes over the longer term.

How can those planning and designing places use this evidence?

Young people experience high levels of anxiety and depression; 1 in 5 young people have symptoms of these conditions and rates are increasing. Young people are also often disadvantaged in terms of access to private gardens, and the ability to travel long distances from where they live. This means that their neighbourhood green spaces and those in educational settings are crucial. Therefore, those planning and designing places must prioritise better access too these types of green spaces for young people, both in terms of the physical proximity to where they live, but also in ensuring they are designed to accommodate the needs of young people. Given that young people are often not aware of the beneficial role of green spaces for their mental health, there is also a need to engage young people in making better use of the green spaces they can access.

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