The Benefits of Nature on Mental Health–For The Privileged

A friend of mine posted this article on Facebook, which is a great think piece.

A new environmental science field that has been exploring nature’s impact on psychology, and publishing highly influential studies whose findings have been gaining traction in popular literature, has been revealed to have a huge diversity problem. How big? Over 95 percent of the studies occurred in high-income Western nations, and the participants were overwhelmingly white. How can these findings then reasonably support universal scientific claims?

Of course, one of the interesting things about posting articles on social media these days is eliciting interaction, and several people chimed in. Is part of this a problem of access—the fact that more privileged can afford to “get away from it all”? Or a dearth or diversity in the field of research itself? One commenter related her experience working in a nature preserve that occasionally had kids from low-income inner-city neighborhoods bused. These kids, she said, would often be terrified they were going to encounter poisonous bugs and snakes or wild animals, having little experience of nature aside from seeing birds and animals on TV.

In this case, it seems the researchers just chose to be non-inclusive. This raises the question of how many studies, including those that may have a global impact on mental health, only apply to a select part of the population, and how we can change that. I’ve always appreciated the diversity of films in the festival, and how much they have to say about how mental health is perceived and stigmatized within different cultures. I often find the perspectives both specific and somehow also universal in a way.

The problem is these study results can’t really make any broad scientific claims if they only apply to a narrow subset of humanity. They would draw far more credibility if their reach was expanded, but more importantly, their implications would be more vast and meaningful in their scope and application. The quote that really struck me was this one from Carlos Andres Gallegos-Riofrio of the University of Vermont’s Gund Institute for Environment: “This field has great potential to address urgent issues—from the global mental health crisis to sustainability efforts worldwide—but to do so, we must better reflect the diversity of world’s populations, cultures and values.” 

I don’t always think of it that way, but there is a global mental health crisis. It’s one of the top killers every year and a great part of that has to do with cultural stigma and access. This field research provides one big example of why we need to be inclusive.

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