It isn’t often that government is presented with an opportunity to seduce environmentalists, young people and mental health campaigners in one fell swoop. It’s even more unheard of that they could do it cheaply. So it’s no surprise that the evidence linking access to nature with positive mental health outcomes is gaining currency among policy makers. But to exploit this opportunity, the government will need to do more than it has so far promised in its new 25 year environment plan.
Mental ill-health represents one of the biggest public health challenges in the UK. But for young people, it has become a crisis. One in four will experience a ‘significant’ mental health problem in the course of a year, whilst it is estimated that the rate of depression among teenagers has increased by 70 per cent in the last 25 years. Girls and those from more disadvantaged backgrounds suffer most. One in four girls is reported to have clinical depression by the time they turn 14 and children aged 10 to 15 are two and a half times more likely to experience depression and anxiety if they belong to a lower socioeconomic group.
In her recent speech to launch the 25 year environment plan, Theresa May declared that the exclusion of young people from our countryside and large urban green spaces constitutes a “social injustice”. She also recognised that access to the natural environment is good for our mental health. These comments are encouraging insofar as they indicate a growing recognition among policy makers of the long standing body of evidence linking access to nature with positive mental health outcomes. Whilst the ambition to tackle mental ill-health through nature and the environment, as outlined in the 25 year environment plan, is impressive, the means of achieving it are woefully underspecified.
What’s the evidence?
Research into the positive health effects of exposure to nature dates back to at least the 1980s and the literature is now well developed. The recently published Oxford textbook of nature and public health gives a flavour of the prevailing wisdom. The authors present evidence from a range of studies that show, for example, that living more than a kilometre away from green spaces – eg forests, parks, beaches and lakes – increases the likelihood of people reporting high levels of stress by 40 per cent. These people also score worst on measures of both mental and bodily health. In the UK, evidence shows that living in greener areas is associated with lower levels of mental distress and higher well-being, whilst moving to greener urban areas is associated with sustained mental health improvements.
But it isn’t simply the availability of green space that matters for people experiencing mental ill-health. According to Natural England, more structured interventions, such as therapeutic horticulture, conservation and care farming, are also effective ways of reducing symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress, as well as improving people’s sense of social inclusion.
The 25 year environment plan is a start
So what can government do to improve access to nature and encourage the uptake of these green care services? The 25 year environment plan contains some welcome ambitions. It will “help people improve their health and wellbeing by using green spaces”, it will “encourage children to be close to nature” and it will “’green our towns and cities.” While there are some measurable targets for achieving these ambitions, such as trebling the number of people who can access care farms to 1.3 million by 2022, many of the actions promised are vague and most are not underpinned by specific timeframes or measurable targets. For example, it commits the government to consider how NHS mental health providers in England can work with environmental organisations to offer mental health therapies, without specifying how these programmes would be funded. This is a particularly worrying omission given the recent funding cuts to NHS children’s mental health services. It also aspires to improve natural infrastructure and mental health provision across England, but does not show how it will target more deprived areas where mental health issues are particularly acute.
Improving access to high quality green spaces, the natural environment and green care services would be a cost effective intervention that would appeal to the hearts and minds of young people. If the government is serious about making progress on this agenda, it should tighten its commitments in the 25 year environment plan to include clear long and short term targets, details on funding and realistic timeframes to scale up provision.
Young voters carry more electoral weight today than at any point in the past 25 years, and the last election demonstrated that the Conservative Party is struggling to appeal to them. As young people are disproportionately affected by mental ill-health and too often excluded from the natural spaces that could help, investing in better access to nature, particularly for this demographic, is too good an opportunity for the government to miss. After all, nature is the new nurture.