Nature offers a host of mental health benefits, but not everyone can access them.
I lived in New York City for 8 years, in one tiny apartment after the other. At first, I loved the hustle and bustle of urban life. I loved the restaurants and food delivery, the museums, the theater, and the sounds of being surrounded by so many people doing so many different things all at once.
It had always been my dream to live in a city like this: I couldn’t imagine myself anywhere else.
But slowly over the years, I found myself craving time outside. I missed trees and wildlife sightings that weren’t simply the pigeons that perched outside my window. So, about 6 years after moving to the city, I planned my first camping trip since childhood to Acadia National Park in Maine.
On my second day there, I spotted a fawn in the woods. I was more excited than I’d ever been about anything in the city. That’s when I realized just how much I missed having nature in my life.
Over the next 3 years, my husband and I went camping as often as we could. Any day off was spent outside, somewhere with trees and greenery. On those trips, I felt focused, happy. and more at peace. But every time we’d come home, every time we’d reach city limits, I’d feel a sadness I couldn’t quite describe.
This is why we eventually left for the countryside — a decision I’ve never regretted.
While not a medical diagnosis, “nature deficit disorder” is a phrase coined by Richard Louv, a man who’s dedicated his life to advocating for humans to have a greater connection to nature.
He considers the term a metaphor of sorts to describe the health effects of being separated from nature, including “diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, higher rates of physical and emotional illness.”
Louv grew up in Missouri and Kansas and spent many hours in the woods with his dog. It’s these formative experiences, he thinks, that made him realize just how important time outside really is.
“The human connection to nature isn’t a panacea for everything that ails us, but I do believe that for many of us, it’s fundamental to maintaining our humanity,” he says. “We need nature experience as an antidote to some of the downsides of technological influences.”
There’s plenty of evidence to back up Louv’s claims. Research suggests that nature is beneficial for:
These benefits could explain why ecotherapy is becoming increasingly popular.
According to the World Economic Forum, 56 percent of the world’s population lives in cities — and that percentage is expected to grow.
Louv believes this figure means one of two things will happen: “Either the continued erosion of the human connection to the rest of the natural world and a growing sense of loneliness or the beginning of new kinds of cities and communities, in which people spend as much time immersed in nature as they do technology.”
He’s fighting for the second option, which is why he’s written several books advocating for it. He believes strongly that cities have a role in creating greenspaces for biodiversity and human connection to nature.
It’s also why he co-founded the Children and Nature Network, an organization dedicated to connecting families and communities to nature and the tools they need to access it.
The pandemic caused a lot of people — especially those in cities — to be stuck indoors, isolated from one another. As things slowly start to open up, there’s an opportunity to make time in nature a more regular habit.
And there’s good news for city dwellers: You don’t need a lot of access to nature to see the benefits.
Even better, you don’t need to go to a big park or wilderness preserve to feel the benefits. City parks or gardens can help, too. In fact, just owning a green plant has been prescribed by doctors to help combat loneliness in the UK.
“Any green space will provide some benefits to mental and physical well-being,” Louv says. “In urban areas, more natural landscape can be found in a park, a quiet corner with a tree, or several pots with vegetables growing outside the door, even a peaceful place with a view of the sky and clouds.”
Don’t underestimate the power of fresh air to your mental health. The next time you’re feeling down, consider heading outside for an hour, even if it’s just to a small city park.