Child and adolescent mental health refer to the social, psychological, and emotional well-being of children and adolescents and the progression of their developmental milestones.
The development of any mental health issues in children and adolescents has the potential to continue into adulthood. This continuation also means there will be a continued strain on the individual, their carers, and the healthcare system.
The majority of existing child and adolescent mental health studies focus on individual-level factors (e.g., biological) related to mental health outcomes. As such, it is important to investigate the external influences on child and adolescent mental health – for example, their neighborhood environment and exposure to nature.
Research shows that contact with the natural environment may positively impact our mental health. These studies tend to include both child, adolescent, and adult participants, however, there may be findings specific to each age group that may be overlooked by grouping them together. Thus, this article presents the latest research surrounding the positive impact nature has on child and adolescent mental health.
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How does childhood exposure to greenspace help?
Research suggests that exposure to greenspace – areas of vegetation for recreational or aesthetic purposes in an urban environment childhood can positively impact mental health.
The extent of this impact varies depending on the psychiatric disorder. A study by a team of researchers from Aarhus University investigated how the risk of developing a psychiatric disorder in adulthood is related to exposure to greenspace.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is one of the most prevalent neurodevelopmental disorders and is characterized by symptoms of hyperactivity and inattention. Research suggests that access to green space has a positive impact on attention in school-aged children and therefore may benefit childhood-onset ADHD.
The direct cause of ADHD is not fully understood; however, it is thought to be associated with environmental risk factors such as environmental toxins.
The mechanism by which these associations occur is not fully understood, but research suggests there may be psychological and physiological pathways. Nature is known to promote stress recovery and attention restoration. Stress and inattention are key symptoms of ADHD that strongly affect a child’s day-to-day lifestyle.
Physically, access to nature in an urban environment reduces exposure to environmental stressors, for example, air pollution. Previous research has demonstrated that exposure to high levels of air pollution is associated with severe symptoms of ADHD.
Consequently, a supposed beneficial association between green space and ADHD may partly be explained by lower air pollution levels in green areas.”
Thygesen et al., 2020
A study by a team of researchers from Aarhus University investigated the potential association between green space and reduced risk of developing ADHD in children, and whether this was mediated by exposure to air pollution. Results of this study found that higher levels of green space during early childhood were related to a lower risk of developing ADHD and can be partly due to reduced levels of air pollution.
The direct cause of reduced air pollution levels – e.g., due to less traffic or more vegetation – was unclear. As such, a similar study that focuses on the effect of green space, with low traffic or large amounts of vegetation, on the development of ADHD should be carried out. Results from such a study would be useful in developing treatment interventions for child mental health disorders.
Exposure to nature, COVID-19, and mental health
The COVID-19 pandemic and its associated lockdowns meant that children and adolescents could not access outdoor recreational grounds as they were deemed non-essential.
This sudden reduction in social interaction and change in routine is suggested to inflict stress on children and adolescents. From previous research on pandemics, for example, the H1N1 pandemic, results show that “one-third of youth who experienced isolation or quarantine met the criteria for a PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) diagnosis.” (Jackson et al., 2021).
Outdoor activities provide children and adolescents with the necessary physical, social, and psychological skills essential for their development. Recent research suggests that following COVID-19 lockdowns, children and adolescents are spending more time doing sedentary activities than physical activities. Excessive engagement in sedentary activities is known to negatively affect the mental health of children and adolescents.
As previously mentioned, exposure to nature is associated with increased physical activity – alongside other benefits, which in turn is known to promote mental wellbeing in children and adolescents. Therefore, the lack of exposure to nature and the consequential decrease in mental wellbeing indicates that nature has the potential to promote and improve mental health in children and adolescents.
Neurodevelopmental and other child mental health conditions have the potential to persist in adult life and may worsen. It is therefore important to identify ways to reduce the risk of childhood-onset and progression into adulthood.
Research suggests that exposure to nature in early childhood improves memory and competence and promotes social interaction and attention restoration. Many neurodevelopmental disorders have symptoms of poor concentration, poor social coherence, and inattention. For this reason, further research into the mechanisms behind how nature benefits child mental health is important for developing treatment and interventions.
- Engemann, K., Pedersen, C. B., Arge, L., Tsirogiannis, C., Mortensen, P. B., & Svenning, J.-C. (2019). Residential green space in childhood is associated with lower risk of psychiatric disorders from adolescence into adulthood. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(11), 5188–5193. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1807504116
- Jackson, S. B., Stevenson, K. T., Larson, L. R., Peterson, M. N., & Seekamp, E. (2021). Outdoor Activity Participation Improves Adolescents’ Mental Health and Well-Being during the COVID-19 Pandemic. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(5), 2506. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18052506
- Maes, M. J. A., Pirani, M., Booth, E. R., Shen, C., Milligan, B., Jones, K. E., & Toledano, M. B. (2021). Benefit of woodland and other natural environments for adolescents’ cognition and mental health. Nature Sustainability, 4(10), 851–858. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-021-00751-1
- Thygesen, M., Engemann, K., Holst, G. J., Hansen, B., Geels, C., Brandt, J., Pedersen, C. B., & Dalsgaard, S. (2020). The Association between Residential Green Space in Childhood and Development of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: A Population-Based Cohort Study. Environmental Health Perspectives, 128(12), 127011. https://doi.org/10.1289/ehp6729
- Tillmann, S., Tobin, D., Avison, W., & Gilliland, J. (2018). Mental health benefits of interactions with nature in children and teenagers: a systematic review. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 72(10), 958–966. https://doi.org/10.1136/jech-2018-210436
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Last Updated: Nov 19, 2021
Joelle completed her Bachelor of Science degree in Cognitive Neuroscience and Psychology at The University of Manchester in 2021. Prior to this, Joelle completed a Biosciences Foundation Year at The University of Manchester in 2018.
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