Nature and Mental Health: What Is the Link?

Evidence suggests that outdoor activity can benefit mental health in myriad ways

Posted Oct 22, 2019

A recent survey found that fall is the favorite season of most Americans. Famously described by poet John Keats as a "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness," autumn is especially welcome to those who enjoy the glories of nature and the great outdoors.

The cooler temperatures are ideal for vigorous activities, such as hiking and biking, or more relaxed activities, such as a long walk on the beach or a spot of gardening. All this is undoubtedly good for our physical health, but can such activities in nature also benefit our mental health?

Interestingly, traditional folklore has long posited that exposure to nature can facilitate recovery and healing from mental illness. Interestingly, this belief has also been shared by the medical establishment down through the ages.

For example, a recommended treatment for mental illnesses in the Victorian era were regular visits to an open-air spa in places of natural beauty. This was known as hydrotherapy and was a common treatment in the West.

Moreover, mental asylums were intentionally built in the countryside, often on bucolic, tree-laden grounds close to rivers and water. This was based on a belief in the curative power of nature, and concerns that urbanized environments damaged mental health.

Are Cities Bad for Mental Health?

The ancient belief that mental illness is worse in urbanized environments is supported by much recent research. Indeed, the mass of evidence indicates that rates of mental illness are higher in cities, and lower in the countryside.

On the one hand, this can be explained by the fact that cities act as magnets for people vulnerable to mental illness. On the other hand, some research indicates that the urban environment can create toxic levels of stress, which can affect mental health.

All this leads to a tantalizing question. Can contact with nature improve mental health and foster recovery from mental illness? This question is rarely asked in mainstream psychiatry. However, growing evidence suggests that contact with nature can improve mental health in a variety of ways.

Exercise, Sunlight, and the Great Outdoors

Contact with nature often involves exercise: for example, walking, hiking, or biking. This type of exercise releases endorphins, which can elevate mood and reduce physical pain, in people with or without a mental illness.

Of note, people with more chronic mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, often have issues with their physical health. This can include obesity, sleep difficulties, and cardiovascular issues. An outdoor activity that involves physical exercise can help improve all of these physical variables, which can have an effect on mental health.

Indeed, some recent research indicates that the positive impact of exercise is similar to that of anti-depressant medication. In fact, physicians in several countries can now officially prescribe exercise for depression.

Similarly, outdoors activity often means exposure to sunlight and blue skies. This can be vital for positive mental health. For example, sunlight prompts the release of serotonin, which can improve mood and cognitive function and also contributes to a normative sleep cycle.

In fact, some have speculated that lack of sunlight is one of the factors behind the high rates of suicide in northern regions, such as Greenland and Finland. This simplifies a very complex issue but may be one of many factors behind increased suicide risk.

Nature Therapy?

A number of mental health services have programs that promote contact with nature. For example, the Douglas Hospital in Montreal has a horticultural therapy program that gets patients gardening outdoors.

Other health services have animal-assisted therapy programs, whereby patients can take dogs on long walks or even go horse-riding: for example, Spirit Horse in Newfoundland. Some of these programs are discussed in the engaging and stimulating video below:

Some research indicates that these programs can reduce stress and loneliness, and also improve emotional well-being. However, there is a need for more systematic research on these interventions to assess the specific impacts and critical ingredients.

What Can You Do?

To conclude, the scientific evidence points in the same direction. Contact with the natural world can foster positive mental health, and even facilitate recovery from mental illness.

In other words, everybody can benefit from contact with nature: young and old, male or female, mentally-ill or mentally-well. In the immortal words of Walt Whitman, "Now I see the secret of making the best person, it is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth."

Get outdoors to promote your mental health—you won't be disappointed.