Thursday, April 20, 2017

Depression: The Magic of Shrubbery

Does living next to greenery offer benefits to your mental health, or is something else at work?

Last month, the headline “Access to nature reduces depression and obesity, finds European study” caught my eye. All I had to do to feel happier and fit in my pants better was surround myself with trees? I felt silly. Here I was using cognitive behavior therapy techniques, exercising, and working on my sleep schedule. Instead, I should have been sitting in a bush all day.

After all, that’s what it implied in the news. Look at what they were claiming:

Middle-aged Scottish men with homes in deprived but verdant areas were found to have a death rate 16% lower than their more urban counterparts. Pregnant women also received a health boost from a greener environment, recording lower blood pressures and giving birth to larger babies, research in Bradford found.

See? The babies know all that verdant abundance matters. Just being near the plants made a difference! There couldn’t be any other reason pregnant women gestating babies in the suburbs have healthier, larger children. The same with the men in kilts. Elements like economics or culture couldn’t be at work here. It had to be the trees that were keeping them alive longer. And who cares if the word “obesity” only shows up in the headline‽ We’re talking magical benefits here. Of course being around greenery causes you to lose weight. Why wouldn’t it?

Look at this claim:

Overall, nature is an under-recognised healer, the paper says, offering multiple health benefits from allergy reductions to increases in self-esteem and mental wellbeing.

So living in areas with more greenery reduces allergies from plants and trees. Clearly, I don’t understand how things work, because I was under the impression that pollinating plants caused allergies, but being surrounded by nature is the cure to being colonized by nature. Who knew? Surely the evidence for the benefits of magical chlorophyll helping depression were rooted in firmer facts, right? Nope. Just like the word “obesity”, “depression” wasn’t backed up in the article and existed only in the headline. Talk about fake news.

So who was making all these claims? Was there any truth to them? In the middle of the article was the first clue that things were not quite as the headline claimed:

The project first appeared as an unpublicised 280-page European commission literature review last autumn, before being augmented for Friends of the Earth Europe with analysis of the links between nature-related health outcomes and deprivation. (Emphasis added.)

We don’t need to travel too far down the rabbit hole to see that this hodgepodge of claims was put together by a group advocating for governments to spend more money on gardens. (“New-borns in areas with abundant green spaces have a higher birth weight and head circumference” Go plants!) The reference to obesity was in a list of ailments facing European societies. Nowhere in the report did it claim that plants fought obesity. The reference to depression was a side-note in a side box. This article was shoddy journalism; the report bordered on wishful thinking.

Anybody looking for a quick fix for their depression by hitting Home Depot’s garden department may be disappointed in the results. It’s not that greenery is a bad idea. If you find aromatic plants stress-relieving and uplifting, you may experience benefits to having those plants around you. If you can get out to the forests and mountains for a hike, the fresh air and abundant nature will do you good. Do it often enough, and you might be able to manage mild depression that way. However, a tree in and of itself isn’t going to lift your mood simply by being there. You can achieve the same boosts to self-esteem and mood by visiting an art gallery, spending a day with family, or working on a hobby. Go out and do something to lift your spirits! I favor less passive methods of relieving depression. You need to pick up the sword and swing it to fight depression, not leave it in your belt.

Speaking of belts, mine is a bit tight, so I’m going out for a walk. If I find a bush that will make me thin again, I’ll be sure to let you know where it is.

If you like using nature to combat depression, you should read my book. It advocates medicinal sunsets.