Growing Up Near Green Space Reduces Risk of Mental Illness

going for walk

A remarkable Danish study underscores the importance of keeping nature in our cities and our lives.

There's something about forests. They never lose their appeal. The clean-smelling air, towering trees, fluttering leaves, and sounds of small animals communicating among themselves – being immersed in all of this, even for short periods of time, can be incredibly soothing and rejuvenating.

But it could be even more beneficial than you realize. A new study out of Denmark has just found that growing up near green space can reduce one's risk of mental illness by up to 55 percent. Published in the journal PNAS last week, it's said to be "the largest investigation of the association between green spaces and mental health."

Using the Danish Civil Registration System, an extensive database that tracks mental health, socioeconomic status, and place of residence from time of birth, the researchers were able to compare the risk of developing 16 different mental health disorders in adulthood with how much green space surrounded each child's residence. Armed with information about yearly income, work history and education level, the researchers could "weigh the relative contribution of green space against socioeconomics of the parents and neighborhood."

What they found was that living close to green space reduced risk of mental disorders anywhere between 15 and 55 percent, depending on the type of illness. Intellectual disabilities and schizoaffective disorders were not affected in any way, but alcoholism, for example, was strongly associated with lack of access to green space in childhood.

In the words of study co-author Kristine Engemann via NPR,

"'Green space seemed to have an association that was similar in strength to other known influences on mental health, like history of mental health disorders in the family, or socioeconomic status.' What's more, the effect of green space was 'dosage dependent' — the more of one's childhood spent close to greenery, the lower the risk of mental health problems in adulthood."

The researchers caution that the results are only correlational, so a conclusion cannot be made for certain; but it adds an important dimension to the conversation about the effects of green space. To put it into perspective, according to neuroscientist Kelly Lambert,

"If we were talking about a new medicine that had this kind of effect the buzz would be huge, but these results suggest that being able to go for a walk in the park as a kid is just as impactful."

The big question remains: Why do green spaces have this profound an effect on mental wellbeing? Perhaps it's a deep evolutionary connection that remains after all these years, a hunger to spend time in an ancient space that was once our natural home. Or maybe it's the closer social interactions, the cleaner and quieter air, the exercise, the relaxation, the exposure to microbes in dirt, all of which occurs when we're in forests and boosts health.

Nevertheless, it's a fascinating study and one that should motivate more of us to spend time outside, get our kids out there, and maybe even consider relocating to a more rural home.