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Mental health benefits of nature cannot be prescribed

When spending time in nature is “prescribed,” the mental health benefits are diminished, according to a new study from the University of Exeter. The experts determined that the great outdoors can help with issues such as depression, but only when individuals choose to experience nature on their town free will. 

Dr. Ann Ojala said the findings should encourage further research in clinical settings. “We need more information on this delicate balance between the intrinsic motivation and sometimes necessary encouragement from outside, as well as how nature visits could be integrated to mental health treatment.”

The researchers analyzed the potential for exposure to green space to reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression. The team collected data from more than 18,000 people in 18 different countries. 

The data was obtained from the EU Horizons BlueHealth project. The goal of this study was to understand why people feel motivated to spend time in nature, how often they visit, and how social pressure influences their emotional experiences during visits.

The analysis showed that while external pressure may promote more time spent outdoors, the internal response is not the same.

A growing collection of research confirms that experiencing nature has a positive impact on well-being, but it has remained unclear how “green prescriptions” may help to manage or alleviate the complex symptoms of mental health disorders.

The researchers were surprised to find that people suffering from depression were already visiting nature as often as people without mental health issues, and that individuals with anxiety were visiting significantly more often.

Overall, the benefits of nature were found to be consistent regardless of medical status. However, the benefits were undermined when people were not getting outside by choice. The more pressure people felt to visit nature, the more anxious they felt. 

“These findings are consistent with wider research that suggests that urban natural environments provide spaces for people to relax and recover from stress,” said study lead author Dr. Michelle Tester-Jones.

“However, they also demonstrate that healthcare practitioners and loved ones should be sensitive when recommending time in nature for people who have depression and anxiety. It could be helpful to encourage them to spend more time in places that people already enjoy visiting; so they feel comfortable and can make the most of the experience.”

According to the experts, the research provides evidence that integrative techniques should be used to prescribe nature as a treatment for mental health issues.

“We had no idea just how much people with depression and anxiety were already using natural settings to help alleviate symptoms and manage their conditions,” said Dr. Matthew White. 

“Our results provide even greater clarity about the value of these places to communities around the world, but also remind us that nature is no silver bullet and needs to be carefully integrated with existing treatment options.”

Professor Matilda van den Bosch concluded that with green prescriptions, just like any intervention, it is important to avoid using pressure. “Nature cannot be forced on anyone, but must be provided at the individual’s own pace and will.”

The study is the published in the journal Scientific Reports.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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