By Kylla Benes

While mental health issues affect people worldwide, the statistics in the U.S. alone are staggering:

  • 43.9 million (17.9%) adult Americans have, or are currently, experiencing some form of mental illness;
  • 18.1% of adults and 25.1% of children experience anxiety;
  • 9% of children suffer from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and about 1 in 68 have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

The incidence and prevalence of mental illness in America has risen dramatically. In 2000, the number of patient care episodes in psychiatric, full-time residential, and ambulatory facilities was 3.7 times greater than in 1955, with 38 in 100 Americans receiving treatment. A rise that has reached epidemic proportions according to some experts.

While there isn’t a single cause to mental health disorders, as someone who loves the great outdoors, one hypothesis really caught my attention. The Nature Deficit Disorder, an idea put forth by Richard Louv in a book by the same name, is not a formally recognized illness. Rather, it is meant to bring attention to the declining amount of time people spend outside, and the potential impacts this has on our connection to nature and our health, including mental health.

The idea of a nature deficit disorder has some support. The average American is sedentary 7.7 hours a day, and kids ages 0 to 12 spend only 25 to 42 minutes per week doing outdoor activities, excluding sports. Further, after decades of visitor growth, the National Park System has seen a nearly 20 percent decline in per capita visitors since 1988. A result correlated, in part, with time spent using electronic devices. It’s no surprise that limited physical activity can be bad for us, but can time with nature really improve our mental health?

A 2012 review by Stanford scientists revealed a number of studies have found benefits to spending time outdoors. People of all ages report feelings of elation, increased self-esteem, reduced stress, and improved memory and concentration after spending time outside or viewing green environments, compared to people who do not (e.g., compared to people who spend time in a city). These responses are not just ‘felt’ by study participants, they are also supported by physical manifestations of mental health, such as decreased blood pressure, and heart rate as well as changes to brain activity.

While still an area of on-going area of research, there are three main hypotheses as to why nature has these effects on us. One hypothesis proposes that time in nature greatly reduces stress. A second hypothesis, formulated by Drs. Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, postulates being in a green space gives our brain a much-needed rest from the extreme focus needed to overcome excessive stimulation, like what we might experience living in a major city or at a stressful job. Lastly others, such as E.O. Wilson, have proposed that humans have an innate bond with nature, and that time outside lets us satisfy this connection to a resource we subconsciously know to be healing. Regardless of the reason, positive outcomes seem to occur whether people spend hours lost in an expansive wilderness or just five minutes wandering their own garden. That is, just a little bit of time and a small green space may be all you need to experience the restorative properties of nature.

Time outside can help us all relax, connect with nature, get exercise, and supports positive mental health. A short hike or a picnic in a local park may provide you or someone you love a little reprieve from daily stress, anxiety, and more. More importantly, don’t be afraid to reach out for help if you are experiencing a mental illness. There is no shame in feeling bad; ‘it’s ok to not be ok’. You can find a variety of ways to get help through the National Institute of Mental Health.