Mental health is a buzzword in the global spa industry and those serious about treating it might consider maximising outdoor therapies and spaces if new research is to be taken into account.
Researchers at King’s College London have used smartphone-based technology to assess the relationship between nature in cities and mental wellbeing in real time.
Not surprisingly, they found that being outdoors, seeing trees, hearing birdsong, seeing the sky and feeling in contact with nature were associated with higher levels of mental wellbeing. But they also found the benefits were especially evident in those with higher levels of impulsivity, who are at greater risk of mental health issues.
The researchers developed a smartphone app, Urban Mind, which monitored 108 people who completed 3,013 assessments over a week. Participants answered questions about their environment and momentary mental wellbeing. GPS-based geotagging pinpointed their location.
The results showed significant immediate associations with mental wellbeing for several natural features: trees, the sky and birdsong. Significantly, the improvement was still evident several hours later. “These findings suggest that short-term exposure to nature has a measurable beneficial impact on mental wellbeing,” says King’s College psychologist Andrea Mechelli.
Helps with poor mental health
The investigators were also interested in whether there was a benefit to those at risk of mental health problems. To assess this, participants were rated on ‘trait impulsivity’ – a psychological measure used to predict those with a higher risk of developing ADHD, antisocial personality, bipolar and addictive disorders.
This revealed that the beneficial impact of nature on mental wellbeing was greater in people with higher levels of trait impulsivity and a higher risk of developing mental health issues. Mechelli says this “suggests that nature could be especially beneficial to those individuals who are at risk of poor mental health.
“From a clinical perspective, we hope this line of research will lead to the development of low-cost scalable interventions aimed at promoting mental health in urban populations.”
J & L Gibbons, landscape architects who were involved in the research, are hopeful that the results will “inform future investments and policies, helping build healthier cities”.