Unfortunately, mental health has become a victim of dichotomous political and ideological wars, much like virtually everything else. I wish I could say that the more extreme and ridiculous a position, the less likely it would garner a following, but this does not seem to be the reality of our society. It seems the more preposterous or offensive the claim, the more popular the claim becomes. Often, when the most sensitive subjects are broached by ideologues, it is those suffering the most that bear the brunt of their torment and insanity. I cannot imagine the stress and shame someone suffering from crippling depression, or another mental health issue, must feel when berated by lunatics telling them they’re poisoning themselves, addicted, etc., and do not need their medication. I am not sure what is worse, when this comes from friends or family, or complete strangers.
Often, critics of fraudsters and charlatans championing dangerous positions take a firm, somewhat less dangerous counter position. Rather than acquiescing any points to their target, they downplay claims to not give an inch. It happens across evert arena of intellectual debate (or lack there of), and a particular meme and counter meme circulating the internet strikes home my point regarding todays topic, de-stressing in nature.
Proponents of “natural” mental health will circulate this meme:
Skeptics of the meme then mockingly share the following:
My big issue with this is there is evidence that getting out in nature can improve moods, and just getting out and moving around can lead to other indirect benefits. It is dangerous and insulting to suggest that no one needs anti-depressants. They are medicine. That said, they do come with side effects and for many, it may take several attempts with different medications to find one that even works. When they do work, they may not work perfectly, and definitely shouldn’t be the only line of defense. Self-care is important and having many strategies to improve one’s health, whether it be physical or mental, is imperative.
I do want to mention that I have seen a third, more reasonable meme circulating:
The red text at the bottom of the picture isn’t necessary, and I speak a great deal about open and respectful communication in my 3-part series on Don’t Trust the Health Experts (link to part 1). At least whoever made this meme recognized that getting out in nature has some anti-stress benefits.
A nice walk through some forested area, even 20 minutes, does wonders for my own stress and mental health. I try my best to get out once a week, often more, and walk through a park, breathe in the fresh air, become mindful of what is around me and then let my mind wander. Anecdotally, I notice a big difference in both the clarity and burst of creativity I receive if it is a short walk close to home, still within cell phone range, or if I drive 25 minutes and walk into the mountains where I lose reception. In fact, I’ve had writers block the last few weeks; not just for the website, but for important projects that need my attention. The only writing I have actually managed between mid-August to the end of September was done the day after I spent two days hiking all over Zhangjiajie National Park in China. Despite being busy, hungover from my last night, and having a million things on my mind, I managed to find time to allow a few thousand words to flow in short order. It dawned on me today that I haven’t been able to get out, de-stress and walk through the woods since those days in China a month ago. Again, this could be coincidental, but I suspect it is not.
Perhaps my once or twice a week isn’t enough. In one study published in Frontiers in Psychology, participants were asked to partake in three “nature experiences” per week lasting at least 10 minutes per experience. The study found that nature experiences lasting more than 20 minutes found a reduction in cortisol, a hormone related to stress, at a rate of 21% above expectations for time of day.i I’m a firm believer that the more you accomplish, the more you are able to accomplish. It shouldn’t surprise me upon reflection of my own performance timelines across my various endeavours, both business and personal, the times that I have felt the most relaxed and able to get out and enjoy myself whether it be getting out in nature or otherwise, the more I have actually accomplished towards my tasks. The times where I have felt “slammed”, “stressed”, and have had little time for anything but work, the less I have actually accomplished during that time. Counterintuitively, for myself and likely for most readers, the more overwhelmed you feel the more you need to force yourself to take a few breaks a week, get into nature, and reduce your stress. What you lose in time will very likely be well overcompensated in performance, not to mention contentment.
The proponents of getting out in nature aren’t just myself, the natural crowd, and a single study. It’s well established as beneficial, as Harvard Health puts it: “Research in a growing scientific field called ecotherapy has shown a strong connection between time spent in nature and reduced stress, anxiety, and depression.”
The Harvard Health article also expands to talk about hypotheses on how getting out in nature could help with depression, diving into one study that showed 90 minutes in nature reduced activity in the prefrontal cortexii, the region of the brain associated with repetitive thoughts on a negative emotion, a symptom all too familiar to those suffering from depression. In fact, one review posted in ScienceMag comes to several consensus statements:
CONSENSUS STATEMENT #1: EVIDENCE SUPPORTS AN ASSOCIATION BETWEEN COMMON TYPES OF NATURE EXPERIENCE ND INCREASED PSYCHOLOGICAL WELL-BEING
CONSENSUS STATEMENT #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
CONSENSUS STATEMENT #3: EVIDENCE SUGGESTS THAT OPPORTUNITIES FOR SOME TYPES OF NATURE EXPERIENCE ARE DECREASING IN QUANTITY AND QUALITY FOR MANY PEOPLE AROUND THE GLOBE
The first two consensus statements are easy enough to accept. Get out in nature, it will benefit your mental health, whether you are just looking to improve your mental health or are looking to assist in reducing the burden of many types of mental illness. The third consensus statement is a large issue. As mental health issues are significantly rising, at least in young adults, the availability of nature experiences is decreasing for many around the globe. While this could simply be correlative, it could also be causative. The review article above seems to believe there is a strong enough connection. From the ScienceDaily article on the subject published this July “An international team led by the University of Washington and Stanford University has created a framework for how city planners and municipalities around the world can start to measure the mental health benefits of nature and incorporate those into plans and policies for cities and their residents.” This team published the review in question.
I’m fortunate enough to live in the Greater Vancouver area. My access to nature is potentially unparalleled for being within a thriving metropolitan area. There is a nice little lake that is a 15-20-minute walk from my house, which I only utilize if it is getting dark in the late evening, as a couple kilometres further (less than a 5-minute drive), there is a massive park with many loops and trails through a dense cedar forest and a tranquil lake. Even that is my “close to home” stroll, as a 20-minute drive in the other direction there is a 12 km loop around a lake at the base of mountains, again through dense forest. Journeying to this spot I find ideal as my cell reception becomes intermittent, almost non-existent. I prefer the forest and mountains, but I need to drive past another walk to get to my preferred one, another several kilometer-long stroll along the ocean/inlet.
For those not as fortunate, petition your local politicians at various levels of government. Politicians allocate funds to what voters demand. I can’t imagine a politician suggesting cutting funds for green spaces in Vancouver, at least not in the current cultural climate, but the reverse is true for many areas. If no one is clamouring for more green spaces, or using what is available, creating better parks and better nature experiences will not become a priority for budgets. If your area lacks high quality parks and green spaces, use them anyway. Make due and get involved to make sure others do as well. The more use they get, the more voters protest for higher quality, the more funds will be allocated.
Get out, enjoy nature, for your happiness and mental health.