Nature Helps Mental Health, Research Says, But Only For Rich Whites?

New findings show a troubling lack of diversity — in participants and geography — in a growing scientific field exploring the effects of nature on mental health. Credit: Joshua Brown/UVM

New research shows that a rapidly growing field of environmental science – which measures the effects of nature on human well-being – has a diversity problem that threatens its ability to make universal scientific claims.

The field – which combines psychology and environmental research – has produced many important studies detailing the benefits of nature, forests and parks on human well-being and mental health, including happiness, depression and mental health. ‘anxiety. The findings were popularized by books like Your brain on nature and The natural remedywho defend the health benefits of the great outdoors.

But when researchers at the University of Vermont analyzed a decade of field research — 174 peer-reviewed studies from 2010 to 2020 — they found that study participants were overwhelmingly white and BIPOC communities ( Black, Indigenous, People of Color) were significantly underrepresented. . More than 95% of the studies were conducted in high-income Western countries in North America, Europe and East Asia – or in westernized countries like South Africa – while research in the countries of the South was largely absent. Less than 4% of studies were in middle-income countries, such as India, with no studies in low-income countries.

This small sample of humanity makes it difficult for the field to make credible universal scientific claims, say the researchers, who published their findings today in Current research in environmental sustainability.

“This field has great potential to address pressing issues – from the global mental health crisis to sustainable development efforts around the world – but to do so we need to better reflect the diversity of peoples, cultures and values. of the world,” says lead author Carlos Andres Gallegos-Riofrio of the Gund Institute for Environment at the University of Vermont.

A single study in Africa? It’s WEIRD

Gallegos-Riofrio assigns a 2012 historical analysis of human psychology and behavioral science for inspiring the study. This previous team, led by Joseph Henrich, highlighted the problem of drawing universal conclusions about human behavior from experiments that primarily used students from odd countries (Western, educated, industrialized, wealthy, and democratic). Since most humans live in non-WEIRD countries, with different styles of perception, reasoning, and values, Henrich’s team argued that WEIRD studies could not credibly support universal scientific claims. .

The UVM team applied Henrich’s lens, but delved into ethnicity for studies on the mental health benefits of nature. While they expected a Western bias, they were surprised by the level of bias: the sample populations were not only predominantly from WEIRD countries, but also predominantly white.

The researchers were also surprised that 62% of the studies did not report participants’ ethnicity at all (although the team acknowledges that some studies used anonymized data sources, such as Twitter). Of the 174 studies, only one study took place in Africa (South Africa) and one study took place in South America (Colombia) – neither tracked ethnicity. Only one study focused on Indigenous peoples in North America.

“We hope our study is a wake-up call for this promising field that is driving positive change,” says co-author Rachelle Gould of UVM’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources and the Gund Institute for Environment. “A more inclusive and diverse field that embraces the research needs of the global community – and the full range of ways humans interact with the non-human world – will ultimately have more impact.”

In addition to studying ethnicity and geography, the team also explored cultural values. They report that many studies have conceptualized the human-nature relationship in human-centered, individualistic and extractive terms, rather than with concepts like reciprocity, responsibility and relatedness, which are more common in many indigenous cultures. and not Western, the researchers say.

How to extend the field

The team offers several recommendations, including: greater collaboration with diverse communities, greater diversity of participants, better demographic tracking, increased focus on countries in the Global South, culturally sensitive experiences and tools, training in cross-cultural research and a focus on equity and justice. Funding agencies and foundations should encourage greater diversity — of study participants and settings — in their funding appeals, the researchers say.

The team also emphasizes the importance of diversifying environmental science, with better support for students and faculty from diverse backgrounds, and greater collaboration with diverse communities. Research by Dorceta Taylor and others demonstrates that BIPOC academics are underrepresented in American environmental institutions, and that the environmental concerns of BIPOC communities are greatly underestimated.

“We need all cultures to work together to address the global emergencies we face,” says UVM co-author and graduate student Amaya Carrasco. “This requires understanding what is universal in the human-nature relationship and what is culturally specific. These insights are key to driving social change and require research to be more inclusive. We need everyone on deck .”

The study is entitled: “Chronic deficit of diversity and pluralism in research on the effects of nature on mental health: a global health problem”. The research team also included Hassan Arab, a graduate researcher from Wayne University.


Evaluate the morality of actions considered culturally universal


More information:
Chronic deficit of diversity and pluralism in research on the effects of nature on mental health: a global health problem, Current research in environmental sustainability (2022). DOI: 10.1016/j.crsust.2022.100148

Provided by the University of Vermont


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