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Mental Health

The benefit of green spaces for mental health has a diversity issue

62 percent of studies did not report participants' ethnicity at all.

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A beautiful young asian woman enjoy listening to music with headphone with feeling happy and relaxed in the park
Analysis of 174 peer-reviewed papers from 2010 to 2020 found study participants were overwhelmingly white. (Blue Titan/Shutterstock)

By Mark Waghorn via SWNS

The benefit of green spaces for mental health has a diversity issue, according to new research from the University of Vermont.

Over 95 percent of studies occurred in North America, Europe and Asia - or Westernised nations such as South Africa, say scientists.

Trials in Latin America, Africa and Oceania are largely absent. Fewer than four percent took place in less affluent countries such as India - with none in low-income ones.

It means forests and parks may only boost the well-being of rich white people, say environmentalists.

Lead author Dr. Carlos Gallegos-Riofrio said: "This field has great potential to address urgent issues - from the global mental health crisis to sustainability efforts worldwide.

"But to do so, we must better reflect the diversity of world's populations, cultures and values."

An analysis of 174 peer-reviewed papers from 2010 to 2020 found study participants were overwhelmingly white.

BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) communities were strongly under-represented.

The narrow sample of humanity makes it difficult to credibly make universal scientific claims, said the University of Vermont team.

Being close to nature has been found to boost happiness - and combat depression and anxiety.

The phenomenon has been popularized by books like Your Brain on Nature and The Nature Fix, which champion the great outdoors.

Dr. Gallegos-Riofrio credits a landmark 2012 review of human psychology and behavioral science for inspiring him.

Joseph Henrich, a Harvard professor of human evolutionary biology, highlighted the problem of drawing universal conclusions from experiments using college students.

He famously dubbed such individuals WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic).

Most people live in non-WEIRD nations, with different styles of perception and reasoning and values. Prof Henrich argued WEIRD studies were not credible.

Dr. Gallegos-Riofrio and colleagues applied his lens - but dug deeper into the question of ethnicity for nature's mental health benefits.

They were surprised by the level of bias. Sample populations were not only primarily from WEIRD countries - but also overwhelmingly white.

What is more, most (62 percent) studies did not report participants' ethnicity at all. Some used anonymized data sources, such as Twitter.

Only one occurred in Africa (South Africa) and one in South America (Colombia. Neither tracked ethnicity. Just one focused on North America's indigenous peoples.

Co-author Dr. Rachelle Gould said: "We hope our study is a wake-up call for this promising field that sparks positive change.

"A more inclusive and diverse field that embraces the research needs of the global community - and the full spectrum of ways that humans interact with the non-human world - will ultimately be more impactful."

The researchers also found many studies conceptualized the human-nature relationship in individualistic terms.

Reciprocity, responsibility and kinship are more common in non-Western cultures, they pointed out.

Recommendations include a greater diversity of participants and increased collaboration along with improved demographic tracking.

There should also be an enhanced focus on policy needs for impoverished populations improved training in research and more emphasis on equity and justice.

The study also highlights diversifying environmental science, with better support for students from diverse backgrounds.

Research shows BIPOC scholars are under-represented in US environmental institutions and the environmental concerns of their communities are being ignored.

Co-author Amaya Carrasco, a graduate student, added: "We need all cultures working together to tackle the global emergencies we face.

"That requires understanding what is universal about the human-nature relationship, and what is culturally specific. Those insights are critical to driving social change and require research to be more inclusive. We need all hands on deck."

The findings were published in the journal Current Research in Environmental Sustainability.

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