Easing some types of mental illness could be as simple as a walk in the park.
So says Kassie Maxwell, a mental health promotion specialist with the Canadian Mental Health Association.
“Nature and exercise can be as effective as taking an antidepressant,” said Maxwell, who spoke at a recent Green Drinks forum that explored the benefits of spending time in nature.
She said research has found that something as simple as sitting in a park setting can reduce stress, improve mood, and increase energy.
Other studies have shown people who get out and experience nature have greater empathy and sympathy for others.
“The research out there is not showing it’s a cure for mental illness, because there actually isn’t one. What we know is that people can manage symptoms, that recovery is possible, treatment is possible, and treatment is encouraged.”
Inmates at an Oregon maximum-security prison who watched nature films selected by psychology experts experienced reduced aggression, distress, irritability and nervousness, according to one study.
They also committed 26% fewer violent incidents than those who didn’t watch the films.
In Japan and Korea various ‘forest therapies’ are becoming a regular part of preventive medicine, Maxwell said.
With ‘forest bathing,’ the subject walks slowly and deliberately through a forest with the help of a trained guide, taking in the sounds, smells, colours and shapes. Benefits include strengthened immune systems, lower blood pressure and improved focus and concentration.
But Maxwell said you don’t need a woodlot to reap benefits from nature.
“From the research, it constitutes any green space. It could be having a backyard, or if you’re in an apartment building, it could be that you have a couple trees outside of it,” she said.
“The other thing about green spaces, like parks, is that it encourages more than just being in nature, it encourages interacting with people.”
One Finnish study suggests we need to spend at least five hours in nature every month.
So perhaps it’s time to shut off the TV and put on walking shoes for both body and mind.