Environment: A natural remedy for mental ill-health

natural remedy
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Jennifer Oroilidis from Mental Health Europe probes why the environment is a natural remedy for mental ill-health

The natural environment is one of the key determinants concerning mental health. In past years, research has increasingly highlighted the interplay between both. Given the overwhelming evidence of nature’s positive impact on mental wellbeing, tackling environmental degradation can offer win-win solutions to rising numbers of mental health problems and the economic recovery from the COVID-19 crisis. The pandemic adds a heightened urgency for policy-makers to integrate environmental solutions with mental health policies that promote a better future for European citizens.

Environmental degradation poses a threat to mental health

Research by the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP) and the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal) shows that environmental degradation can have a profound negative effect on citizens’ mental wellbeing. Climate anxiety – psychological distress about the future due to climate change – puts a strain on many people’s mental health. The studies also show that extreme weather events, acute weather conditions, and chronic long-term weather changes can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety and depression.

Moreover, noise pollution is linked to poor sleep, cognitive impairment, and exacerbated psychiatric issues. Additionally, scientific evidence links human exposure to chemical substances to depression, anxiety, ADHD and other psychiatric conditions. Equally alarming is the emerging association between outdoor air pollution and personality disorders, sadness, depression and anxiety. The wealth of evidence paints a disturbing picture, proving that environmental degradation has severe implications for human mental health.

On the other hand, nature and biodiversity can evidently improve mental wellbeing and reduce risk factors and burden of some types of mental ill-health as outlined below.

Benefits of nature and biodiversity on mental wellbeing

The mental wellbeing of a population can in part be associated with its proximity to green spaces, blue spaces, street trees and private gardens. Numerous studies have shown that nature images and sounds relieve stress and restore attention. Importantly, natural environments have been linked with a lower prevalence of major depressive disorders. Researchers highlight the importance of nature-based solutions as a valid, long-term alternative to pharmaceutical drugs. This has crucial implications for the prevention of over-medicalisation concerning some mental health issues.

Besides, green spaces can mitigate environmental stressors like heat, air pollution, and noise. On top of that, natural environments encourage physical activity while facilitating social cohesion. Research has demonstrated that physical activity performed in green spaces promotes significant psychological and physiological benefits. Even in the workplace, natural surroundings can positively impact employees’ mental health: compared to workers without natural views, workers with forest views from their office showed reduced psychological stress, frustration and greater lifestyle satisfaction.

The connection between environment and mental wellbeing provides a plethora of opportunities for nature-based solutions to mental health problems.

Integrate nature-based solutions into mental health policies

The COVID-19 pandemic triggered a much deeper recognition of the interplay between citizens’ health, wellbeing and the environment. At the same time, the COVID-19 crisis added a more urgent need to implement effective solutions for both challenges. As the EU heads into the recovery process, there are several key recommendations EU policy-makers should consider for Europeans to come out of the COVID-19 crisis stronger. They should develop a dedicated EU mental health and wellbeing strategy, focusing on environmental determinants and prevention. Further, they should set aside funds for such measures within the EU4Health Programme. Regarding the implementation of the European Green Deal, policy-makers should guarantee mainstream health and wellbeing by including nature-based approaches in local adaptation strategies and urban greening plans. Policies and measures should also consider the greater impact of the uneven social distribution of environmental determinants concerning mental ill-health.

Moreover, it is essential to address the funding gap for implementing the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 by allocating funding to biodiversity protection and ecosystem restoration projects while promoting nature-based solutions within the Recovery and Resilience Facility guidelines for Member States. Priority should be placed on the greening of public health infrastructure, including mental health facilities, to support the emergence of a green care economy for all. A matching grant scheme would facilitate investment that would unlock projects designed to meet environmental and health goals. Apart from that, policy-makers should integrate resilience indicators into the European Semester, the forthcoming 8th Environment Action Programme, and the future communication on the “economy of wellbeing”. In particular, as part of Europe’s zero-pollution action plan, low-income and marginalised communities in Europe should benefit from investments increasing access to nature and reducing exposure to pollution to ensure that those furthest behind benefit the most.

According to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, Europeans have a right to health and to live in a healthy environment. Policy-makers should make good on that promise.

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Communications Assistant
Mental Health Europe
Phone: +32 2 227 2708
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