Having less access to nature during lockdowns early in the COVID-19 pandemic was associated with reported symptoms of depression and anxiety, researchers reported in the journal Science of the Total Environment. Below, researcher Sarai Pouso, PhD, explains the findings and what they mean for mental health clinicians treating patients as the pandemic continues.
Q: What led you and your colleagues to study the connection between access to nature and mental wellness in people under lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic?
A: The study was mainly inspired by two issues: The first reason was to note how differently social distancing measures were impacting me, compared to my family and friends. When the first wave of COVID-19 arrived in Europe, I had recently moved from Spain to Norway. In Norway, the social distancing measures were relatively mild. Despite the closure of shops, restaurants, and preference for remote working, I had a lot of time to enjoy the nature and practice outdoor activities. However, my family and friends in Spain were having a much more complicated experience: they were in strict lockdown and they could only go out for very specific tasks (essential jobs, shopping, or medical reasons). Generally, I noticed that they were sadder and more nervous. Most of them were spending much more time than usual in their gardens and terraces.
The second reason was that prior to the outbreak, during a summer school organized by my PhD supervisor, co-author Dr. Angel Borja, I became familiar with work developed by researchers from the European Centre for Environment and Human Health at Exeter University (Dr. Mat White and Professor Lora Fleming, co-authors) on the positive impacts of nature exposure on human physical and mental health.
After talking with my mentors from [the Basque technology center] AZTI, Drs. Maria C. Uyarra and Angel Borja, we came up with the idea of developing a questionnaire to be able to link all these concepts: lockdown severity, contact with nature and mental health. We asked colleagues from Exeter (Dr. White and Professor Fleming) and Norway (Professor Erik Gómez-Baggethun) to join us, and with their collaboration, we were able to design and carry out the research.
Q: Please briefly describe the study method and your most significant finding(s).
A: We developed and distributed an online and anonymous survey during the first wave of COVID-19. The survey was designed in English and Spanish, and in less than 3 weeks we were able to collect 6769 answers from 77 countries.
The main conclusions are: First, people who were under strict lockdown (eg, Italy and Spain) were more likely to report symptoms compatible with depression and anxiety, compared with countries with more relaxed lockdowns where people could still visit natural places such as parks (eg, the United Kingdom and Norway). Second, among people under strict lockdown, having access from home to outdoor spaces (eg, garden, balcony) and having window views to open spaces or natural elements (eg, sea, coast, park, forest) decreased the probability of reporting symptoms of depression.
The positive effect of access to outdoor spaces and nature views from home was far less important in countries where people were allowed or encouraged to visit parks and other natural locations. Of course, if you still have access to natural locations, having a terrace or nature views from home is less important. But when the only way in which you can “reach” nature is what you can access or see from home, the effect of those elements becomes much more important.