In a world colonized by cement and where cities increasingly concentrate a greater volume of population, the lack of natural space in the open air could have lifelong consequences for our mental health, as this study indicates.
Growing in contact with nature, enjoying time outdoors and living near or within green spaces has been constantly associated with better health outcomes. Now, new research conducted by the Barcelona Institute of Global Health suggests that these benefits can last a lifetime.
This analysis has a pioneering character, since it constitutes one of the first epidemiological studies that show an association between less contact with the natural world in childhood and worse mental health in adulthood. To do this, they collected data from 3,600 individuals in four different European countries, discovering that these childhood experiences are associated with feelings of nervousness, fatigue and depression in adulthood.
The coordinator of the study, Wilma Zijlema, emphasizes that the study demonstrates the importance of green and blue spaces – both water and land – not only for an “attitude that appreciates nature”, but “a healthy psychological state in Adulthood”.
The results, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, show that participants who scored lower on mental health tests also had less exposure to nature in childhood, independently of the time they spent in nature as adults. These participants also gave less importance to natural spaces in general.
This research can only establish correlations and has “limited capacity to establish a causal relationship,” according to the team. Participants retrospectively reported on their experiences in the nature of childhood, which means they may be biased in their memories. For this reason, the authors call for “longitudinal studies that objectively measure the exposure of the nature and health of children to investigate the associations between the accessibility of nature, time and activities dedicated to nature during childhood and health mental and physical throughout the course of life. “
Based on other research in the field, a national study conducted in Denmark found that residential areas with less vegetation have a higher risk of psychiatric disorders in adulthood. Other research in the United States found a link between exposure during childhood to natural spaces and a lower risk of depressive symptoms in adulthood.
This body of research suggests that the design of cities and the importance of gardens, parks and green spaces is essential to help care for the mental health of future generations
As such, the authors of the Institute for Global Health are asking policymakers to ensure natural spaces for children, green schoolyards and contact with nature as part of the school curriculum. Something fundamental considering that by 2050, 80% of Europeans will live in urban areas, while in most countries, activities in nature are not a regular part of educational programs.