Visiting green spaces deters mental health drug use, researchers find

Positive effects were stronger among those reporting the lowest annual household income, says Finnish study

Visits to parks, community gardens and other urban green spaces may lower city dwellers’ use of drugs for anxiety, insomnia, depression, high blood pressure, and asthma, research has found.

Researchers in Finland found that visiting such areas three to four times a week cuts people’s chances of turning to drugs for mental health problems or high blood pressure by a third, and for asthma by about a quarter.

Moreover, the positive effects of visiting green spaces were stronger among those reporting the lowest annual household income, the researchers found.

The findings correlate with a growing body of evidence that a lack of access to green spaces is linked to a range of health problems. Access tends to be unequal, with poorer communities having fewer opportunities to be in nature.

To investigate the link, researchers from the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare drew on the responses of 16,000 randomly selected residents of Helsinki, Espoo and Vantaa – three cities that make up the largest urban area in Finland – to the Helsinki capital region environmental health survey in 2015-16.

The survey gathered information on how city dwellers aged at least 25 experienced residential green and blue spaces within a 1km (0.62-mile) radius of their homes. Green areas included forests, gardens, parks, castle parks, cemeteries, zoos, natural grasslands, moors and wetlands; and blue areas included sea, lakes, and rivers.

Respondents were asked to report their use of prescribed drugs for anxiety, insomnia and depression, and for high blood pressure and asthma. They were then asked how often they spent time or exercised outdoors in green spaces, during May and September, with options ranging from never to five or more times a week.

The researchers chose prescription drugs as a proxy for ill health. They picked those for anxiety, insomnia and depression, and high blood pressure and asthma in particular because they are used to treat common but potentially serious health issues.

They found a strong correlation between visits to green spaces and lower odds of using such drugs. Compared with less than one weekly visit, visiting three to four times weekly was associated with 33% lower odds of using mental health drugs, 36% lower odds of using blood pressure drugs, and 26% lower odds of using asthma drugs.

Curiously, however, those who visited green spaces at least five times a week were only 22% less likely to be using mental health drugs, and 24% less likely to be using asthma medications. Increased frequency did however correlate to lower odds of needing blood pressure drugs, with 41% lower probability than someone visiting less than once a week.

“Mounting scientific evidence supporting the health benefits of nature exposure is likely to increase the supply of high-quality green spaces in urban environments and promote their active use,” the researchers wrote. “This might be one way to improve health and welfare in cities.”

Their research is published online in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine.


Damien Gayle

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Young people’s mental health bolstered by nature projects, report says
Participants in £33m scheme that improved 3,000 community spaces note confidence and wellbeing boost

Damian Carrington Environment editor

20, Oct, 2022 @6:00 AM

Article image
‘I’m glowing’: scientists are unlocking secrets of why forests make us happy
Research project aims to discover how age, size and shape of woodlands affect people’s happiness and wellbeing

Patrick Barkham

02, Sep, 2022 @3:20 PM

Article image
Cocaine in rivers harming endangered eels, study finds
Tests show drug causes eels to become hyperactive and damages their muscles, possibly hindering their ability to migrate

Patrick Barkham

21, Jun, 2018 @3:54 PM

Article image
Bird and birdsong encounters improve mental health, study finds
Research suggests visits to places with birdlife could be prescribed by doctors to improve mental wellbeing

David Batty

27, Oct, 2022 @9:00 AM

Article image
Nature on prescription: wetlands project aims to boost mental health
London Wetlands Centre to run courses focusing on wildlife beauty as therapy to help alleviate depression and anxiety

Damian Carrington Environment editor

13, May, 2021 @5:00 AM

Article image
Power of psychedelic drugs to lift mental distress shown in trials
In 1970 US authorities said drugs like LSD had no medical use, but two tests may just have proven that wrong

Sarah Boseley Health editor

02, Dec, 2016 @5:37 PM

Article image
Farmers will be key to plan to restore England’s green spaces and wildlife
Environmental Improvement Plan includes many ambitious pledges but hard-pressed agricultural sector will need effective support

Helena Horton and Fiona Harvey

31, Jan, 2023 @12:01 AM

Article image
RHS developing ‘wellbeing blueprint’ to enhance health benefits of gardens
Scientists conducting tests at experimental garden in Surrey to determine effects plants and flowers have on people

Helena Horton Environment reporter

21, Feb, 2023 @5:28 PM

Article image
Psychiatrists: the drug pushers

Is the current epidemic of depression and hyperactivity the result of disease-mongering by the psychiatric profession and big pharma, asks Will Self. Does psychiatry have any credibility left at all?

Will Self

03, Aug, 2013 @7:00 AM

Article image
Australian government backs psychedelic drug clinical trials to treat mental illness
$15m grant comes despite TGA’s failure to reschedule MDMA and psilocybin from a prohibited substance to a controlled medicine

Justine Landis-Hanley

18, Mar, 2021 @3:33 AM