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New study identifies factor capable of reducing people's need for mental health services: 'The threshold for good mental health'

The research team collected anonymous data on psychiatric care visits grouped by ZIP codes.

The research team collected anonymous data on psychiatric care visits grouped by ZIP codes.

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A new study adds to the growing evidence that people who live in hectic, busy urban areas get a mental health boost when they have easy access to nature. 

Research from Texas A&M University's School of Public Health found that urbanites who had more exposure to green spaces in their city required fewer mental health treatments. 

For the study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, scientists used a nature calculator called NatureScore to measure urban green space access in numerous ZIP codes across Texas.

The system utilizes datasets from satellite and aerial images, park features, tree canopies, and air, noise, and light pollution, among other information, to score an area from 0 (mostly built environment with few health benefits) to 100 (largely natural environment providing many health advantages). 

The team collected anonymous data on psychiatric care visits grouped by zip codes from Texas Hospital Outpatient Public Use Data Files from 2014 to mid-2019. 

Around half the sample received high NatureScores of over 80, while roughly 22% had scores under 40, according to a university report about the research. Researchers observed that mental health visits decreased by around 50% in neighborhoods with NatureScores over 60. 

Moreover, people who lived in areas within the two optimum NatureScore categories — Nature Rich and Utopia — required much fewer mental health services than those in neighborhoods with the lowest scores.

Other studies have indicated that greater access to nature also improves heart health and slows down the aging process. In addition, cities with more trees and green spaces tend to have lower air pollution because plants help absorb carbon dioxide. 

Nature's ability to keep our minds healthy shows that, even in the modern world, we need to stay connected to our roots. 

"We found that a NatureScore above 40 — considered Nature Adequate — seems to be the threshold for good mental health," Jay Maddock, Ph.D., Regents Professor of environmental and occupational health at Texas A&M who conducted the study, told Vital Record, a news publication of Texas A&M Health. 

"People in these neighborhoods have a 51 percent lower likelihood of developing depression and a 63 percent lower likelihood for developing bipolar disorders," he added.

"Increasing green space in cities could promote well-being and mental health, which is critically important given that more than 22 percent of the adult population in the United States [lives] with a mental health disorder," the study's lead author, Omar M. Makram, told Vital Record.

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