Research Summary

Nature and mental health: An ecosystem service perspective

An ecosystem service perspective may help decision makers anticipate the mental health impacts of decisions they make relating to the environment

Science Advances

Evidence from a rich body of multidisciplinary literature supports a positive connection between nature experience and mental health. Drawing from this literature and from their own expertise, a team of researchers developed “points of consensus across the natural, social, and health sciences on the impacts of nature experience on cognitive functioning, emotional well-being, and other dimensions of mental health.” They summarized their points of consensus into three consensus statements: (1) Evidence supports an association between common types of nature experience and increased psychological well-being; (2) Evidence supports an association between common types of nature experience and a reduction of risk factors and burden of some types of mental illness; and (3) Evidence suggests that opportunities for some types of nature experience are decreasing in quantity and quality for many people around the globe.

Nature experience, as defined in this paper, includes perceptions and/or interactions with stimuli from the natural world through a variety of sensory modalities (sight, hearing, touch, etc.). Nature experiences occur, not only through direct contact with the natural world, but also through window views, representations, or simulations. They can also occur in the context of different activities. The primary focus in this paper, however, is on the benefits received from direct contact with nature. While research supports a positive association between nature experience and mental health, it’s clear that other social and environmental factors can influence this association. “In many cases, these social and environmental determinants of health may outweigh the effects of nature contact on specific outcomes.”

To help practitioners and decision makers effectively use what’s known about the positive association between nature and mental health into service assessments and policy, the team of researchers developed a conceptual model tracing a pathway from environment to mental health. The model shows how ecosystem service assessments can be expanded to include mental health. This model could serve as a tool to help diverse stakeholders “anticipate the mental health impacts of decisions they make relating to the environment.” Additional research is still needed, however, to further specify and investigate ways in which nature experiences promote mental health. Of special concern is determining which aspects of natural features are relevant to mental health. Additionally, future studies would do well to “look at specific health outcomes of people who engage not only in specific forms of interaction but also in constellations of them.” In addition to more research, “greater effort should be made to increase access to nature to help address the significant health inequities that people from low-opportunity neighborhoods experience, in contrast to their privileged counterparts.”