Overcoming Bias in our Understanding of Nature and Mental Health

A young child stands on the beach staring at the camera.

There’s a lot of research supporting the idea that time in nature has a positive effect on our mental health. Exposure to greenspace decreases stress, boosts mood, and helps our bodies’ systems reset and rejuvenate. Nature is good for us. While this truism isn’t in question, a new review of academic papers shows that research about the benefits of nature may be biased in some important ways. The majority of studies conducted to examine the connection between nature and mental health use affluent, white populations in western countries as their study subjects. The researchers who conducted this review, based at the University of Vermont, are careful to point out that they are not casting doubt on the data that demonstrates the positive impact of time outdoors on mental health. Instead, they’re calling for additional research that examines the effects of greenspace in contexts outside of powerful western nations so we can understand the nuances of different cultural connections with the natural world.

Kim Moore Bailey, CEO of Justice Outside smiles while holding a mug
Photo by Brooke Anderson, courtesy of Justice Outside

As we work to improve access to greenspace and build connections with the outdoors among future generations, we need to continually examine the biases we bring to our understandings of what it means to spend time in nature and how people benefit from outdoor recreation. NRF reached out to Justice Outside to learn more about biases around mental health in outdoor recreation. Justice Outside is committed to fighting for racial justice and equity within outdoor and environmental sectors with a focus on the health of current and future generations of People of Color. NRF is lucky to be connected to this amazing organization through its President and CEO, Kim Moore Bailey, who serves on our board. Justice Outside identified one of the most common misconceptions about mental health and the outdoors as the idea that the link between mental health and nature is new. Although it’s a relatively recent area of academic research, Communities of Color have long recognized the link between greenspace and a happy, healthy life. However, because so much research is race-blind or dominated by a white perspective, findings related to nature and mental health are often framed as novel.

A boy rides on his dad's back in a park

Further, time in nature doesn’t have to mean a backpacking trip or spending several days camping in a remote location. Nature is all around us and just a few minutes spent in fresh air and the company of plants can have measurable impacts on our bodies and moods. As part of any effort to connect kids with the outdoors, it’s important to remain open-minded about what nature or outdoor recreation can mean. A cookout in a park, a backyard soccer game, a windowsill herb garden, or a walk down the sidewalk can all be powerful ways to connect with the natural world and the human communities around us. In addition to examining personal and institutional biases, it’s also important to look for leadership from within the communities being served. Justice Outside emphasizes that Communities of Color are the best leaders in advocating for their own needs and bringing the joy of time in nature to their communities. This is also true when we reflect on work happening within other historically marginalized communities such as the LGBTQ+ community, the undocumented community, and the disabled community.

In addition to Justice Outside, there are many other amazing organizations fighting to end bias in outdoor recreation and share the benefits of time in nature with all young people. These include UndocuHealth, Movimiento, the Gateway Mountain Center, and the Southern Arizona Gender Alliance.