A walk in the park. It’s not how most people would describe the COVID-19 chaos. But it has brought much needed joy during these unsettling times.
For many of us, the year 2020 was a write-off. And despite all our hopes and optimism on New Year’s Eve, we continue to live in a strange world in 2021.
Confronted with restrictions of sorts, we resorted to an impressive variety of activities for peace of mind. From making sourdough bread to knitting, solving jigsaw puzzles to reading — we rekindled an interest in weirdly ordinary things.
It turns out many of us also found sanctuary in nature. Global research indicates that visits to local parks increased when most countries were dealing with the first wave of the COVID-19 outbreak. With offices shut and social events cancelled, those of us who weren’t forced to stay at home wandered out into local and national parks, dog parks, public beaches and marinas, plazas, and public gardens.
There was also a surge in nature-based activities such as birdwatching. BirdLife Australia reported a tenfold increase in backyard bird surveys during April 2020, when bored Australians encountered their first set of lockdowns. A record 5 million birds were counted by citizen scientists!
And who doesn’t remember the empty shelves in the Bunnings gardening section? Australians bought more plants in 2020 than ever before, with the sale of herb and vegetable plants growing 27%.
Several studies have shed light on how exposure to nature has supported our mental health during the pandemic. In a Japanese study, greater levels of self-esteem, life satisfaction and subjective happiness were reported by those who visited greenspaces frequently. These participants were also less likely to feel depressed, anxious or lonely. Similar results were reported by those who had windows with views of nature.
Where strict lockdown measures prevented access to parks, elements of nature in the home also uplifted moods. One study surveyed Spanish people who had endured some of the strictest stay at home orders. The study found that participants who had natural views from their window or had access to private outdoor spaces, such as gardens or patios, were less likely to experience the symptoms of depression and anxiety.
In an American study, researchers sought to understand whether outdoor activities mitigate the negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in youths aged between 10-18. This study found that adolescents who participated in outdoor activities and nature play experienced smaller declines in subjective wellbeing (the researchers defined “subjective wellbeing” as a sense of life satisfaction, positive affect and low negative affect).
The findings of these studies are not surprising. We already know that exposure to nature yields several mental health benefits. Perhaps the bright side of the disruptions caused by COVID-19 is that they have allowed people to experience these benefits for themselves.
For public health policy, the findings are important. The research adds to a mounting body of evidence that support the use of nature-based interventions in the treatment of mental illnesses.
Fortunately, some governments are paying attention to this research. The UK Government announced a £5.7 million green social prescribing project in 2020 that will trial the use of nature-based activities — such as outdoor exercise, park runs and community gardening — to prevent and treat mental illness. The government’s two-year project will test how green social prescribing can be embedded into communities to improve mental health outcomes, reduce health inequalities, and ease the burden on the country’s health and social care systems.
At the individual level too, the findings are empowering. It seems COVID-19 and the mental health challenges it poses are not going away any time soon. Now we know that something at our doorstep might help us cope a little better. So go outside, watch the birds and smell the roses — you just might feel better.