‘Critically Important’ Exposure to Nature Reduces Mental Health Issues, New Study Finds

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Proximity to nature and urban green spaces reduces the number of mental health incidents, says the first study of its kind to use NatureScore data.

Residents of urban areas with greater access to green spaces are significantly less likely to require mental health services, according to a new study by Texas A&M University’s School of Public Health. This research, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, underscores the vital link between urban greenery and mental well-being. Led by Jay Maddock, Ph.D., Regents Professor of environmental and occupational health, and in collaboration with the Center for Health and Nature, the study employed NatureScore to assess urban greenness. This innovative tool evaluates the presence and quality of natural elements based on various data sets, including air, noise, and light pollution, as well as parks and tree canopies.

“The association between exposure to nature and better mental health is well established in the United States and elsewhere, but most studies use just one or two measurements of this exposure,” Maddock said. “Our study was the first to use NatureScore, which provides more complex data, to study the correlation between urban nature exposure and mental health.”

california nature preserve
Image courtesy The Nature Conservancy

The study scrutinized mental health visits across Texas cities, utilizing patient encounter data from the Texas Hospital Outpatient Public Use Data Files spanning 2014 to mid-2019. The analysis covered nearly 62 million adult outpatient encounters for conditions such as depression, bipolar disorders, stress, and anxiety. Data from 1,169 urban zip codes revealed a median NatureScore of 85.8, with around half of these areas boasting high NatureScores of 80 or above.

Findings indicate a direct correlation between higher NatureScores and reduced mental health encounters. Specifically, neighborhoods with NatureScores over 60 saw mental health visits drop by about 50 percent. The disparity is even more pronounced in the highest-scoring neighborhoods, dubbed Nature Rich and Utopia, which experienced significantly lower rates of mental health issues compared to those in the lowest scoring category.

The research highlights that a NatureScore above 40, classified as Nature Adequate, appears to be a critical threshold. Residents in such neighborhoods are 51 percent less likely to suffer from depression and 63 percent less likely to develop bipolar disorders. Omar M. Makram, the study’s lead author, emphasized the potential benefits of integrating more green spaces into urban planning. “Increasing green space in cities could promote well-being and mental health, which is critically important given that more than 22 percent of the adult population in the United States with a mental health disorder,” he said.

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