Beyond Greenspaces and Mental Health: The Power of the Wild

Tensions of sustainability, climate change, and global mental health: grassknots, greenspace, and climate psychology.

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Pitlochry, Perthshire

I went for a long walk yesterday. I’m from the US Midwest, a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, and I’ve found myself in Pitlochry, Perthshire for the weekend. A close friend has invited me to join her on holiday in this small, Scottish town of old stone that skims the stout toes of the Highlands. My friend says Pitlochry is a magical place, having lived several summers there herself; I’ve been going through relationship troubles, dealing with some lung and cardiac issues, and the consensus was that these great silences of speaking trees, some fresh breaths of the flittering country air, all might do me some good. I am a lucky gal to have such a friend.

Sun glare through a thick forest of tall trees

I do not claim a walk to cure all evils—not at all, not even close. On this occasion, we trundled over a marshy field, passing the crumbled, deconfigured ruins of Moulin’s Black Castle, nosing our way into a thin cloak of forest, landing on a dirt path running alongside the cascading Black Spout waterfalls. The sun was out shining, the wind was lifting, and the falls were frothed and roiled among giant, lichen-coated indigo stones. We came upon a crowd of skinny redwoods tall and towering, synapsed to the sky. Skinny but for one, which we passed when we hit a dead-end: this one was a single stump of a thousand red tentacles, five boles wrangled by their roots, fused, rising up past the forest’s faded winter rafters. One great, giant redwood octopus. Two of the boles curved widely from the base, creating great easy chairs laid out only a few feet off the ground. The bark was soft, and across its red-copper fabric were splatters of patina green growth. The colors, juxtaposed, reminded me of the Statue of Liberty, weathered and oxidized, and that song we all learned as children of Midwest suburbia: “From the redwood forests to the goldstream waters, this land was made for you and me.” A scripting of silence, we would learn later in life, for a choreography of commodification, of ‘cleaning’ and of death. It made me think on trees and statues, redwoods and faux-liberty and world-endings. Standing there, I couldn’t imagine chopping one of these redwoods down. Then I remembered: yes I could, if I found my life depended on it. In several ways, I probably already do.

There was a carpet of snowdrops. First it was one little bell bursting out of brown, then another, and then the path ran out along a small ridge cropped above a shallow dale, where, below, the Black Spout snaked through thinning hardwoods out into the sunlight—and there, quietly, was a whole green of them! Tiny, bursting bells, perfectly Lórien-like, rising out of rotted leaf. I sat my bum down on the rot in the snowdrops, staring at the sun falling between the trees and glinting across the grey snake below. For the first time in a long time, I felt the air the way I used to when I was little. Like a loose cotton kite, it rose, hovering, ballooning in the sunlight, cooling in patches as shreds of cloud swept on. It’s only when I’m sitting for a while on the ground that I can sense it like that—like when my sister and I used to play in the grass for hours, making cakes out of mashed garlic bulbs and staking tomato meat on twigs. How much did we take that air for granted, the wind that ran its fingers through cool, waxy meadows, hugging our shoulders, patting our hair? How many times, without thinking about it, have I taken a blade of grass in my fingers, sliced it in two with my nail, and tied the sides back together into a knot? Breaking something so absentmindedly, only to twist it in on itself as you bring it back together again. Is that the intuitive way of humans in my—admittedly small—world? Is this the only way I know how to be? Anyways, on that ridge in Pitlochry, sitting in the snowdrops, I took some deep belly breaths, and they felt like the easiest breaths I’ve taken in an incredibly long time.

Situating Greenspace and Mental Health

What do redwoods, snowdrops, and grassknots have to do with mental health? The way I see it, there are layers of connections and complexities that remain undefinable, traversing what we’ve delineated as vocabularies, scales, disciplines, and sectors. For my MSc in Global Mental Health and Society, my dissertation attempted to explore human-nature relationships by studying urban greenspace at the intersection of land management, public healthcare, and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030. On placement with the Edinburgh Department for Social Responsibility and Sustainability, I conducted my research during the  height of the Covid-19 pandemic, in the same year that Scotland was gearing up to host COP26 in Glasgow; nature, health, sustainability and climate change were thus quite relevant topics for political curiosity.

My research, therefore, was systematic and structured from conception. I conducted a systematized scoping literature review on the emerging literature connecting urban greenspace and mental health outcomes since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns, as well as semi-structured interviews with stakeholders in Edinburgh’s local greenspace development. In sum, I wanted to see what the scholarship and decision-makers had to say, at that point, about greenspace and mental health.

The scholarship mainly consisted of cross-sectional survey data, tracing associated changes in behavior, mental health outcomes, and evident inequities imbued in greenspace when it becomes framed as a public health service. In this case, ‘greenspace’ occupied a loose, rather nebulous term for the aesthetics of outdoor nature spaces in cities, ‘green’ and ‘blue,’ consisting respectively of parks and pathways, waters and waterfronts.

The results involved myriad correlations. The limited mobility precipitated by pandemic lockdowns was associated with a large increase in discovery and use of local greenspaces for health and coping. Accessible greenspace was associated with lower symptoms of depression and anxiety in lockdowns, and increased exposure to greenspace was associated with lower psychological distress. Health inequalities of greenspace were thus found to arise, in this case, predominantly via the realms of proximity, quality, and access. Greenspaces make visible disparities embedded in the urban landscape, such as the lack of ‘cleaned’ and ‘maintained’ greenspaces within a 15- to 20-minute walk of homes in some city segments. Greenspaces also engage conversations about urban accessibility for certain groups, such as older people and people with disabilities, that have not been adequately built into the infrastructure.

Overall, however, the analysis was limited: cross-sectional surveys provide a capture for explaining potential relation, yet they say little of the contexts and complexities inherent to personal connections to environments, as well as conceptions of health and well-being. All surveys included in my research during this time period had been conducted in developed countries, predominantly in Australia, Europe, and USA, with little accounting for the vast diversities, in people and societies, in ecosystems and landscapes, both within and outside of these settings.

Localizing the project to Edinburgh, interviews with nine city decision-makers emphasized greenspace as a focal point in Edinburgh’s future visioning and strategy. All interviewees were involved in Edinburgh’s Thriving Greens Spaces project, an initiative linking greenspace stakeholders across the academic, government, and third sectors of urban planning. According to stakeholders, in light of the SDGs and the UK’s historical ecological deprivation, an ongoing priority for Edinburgh foregrounds greenspaces as havens for wildlife. Increasing ‘ecological coherence’ across the city landscape entails focusing on building and greening ‘nature networks,’ or pathways that connect larger areas of greenspace, to facilitate the movement, safety, and viable habitat space for urban wildlife, whilst also promoting more sustainable travel for people. Positioning greenspace in the realm of mental health, stakeholders emphasized the benefits of community engagement enabled by greenspaces, especially during the pandemic. In this vein, informal, grassroots volunteer groups called ‘Friends of Edinburgh’ greenspace groups work with the City of Edinburgh Council on a volunteer basis to contribute to cleaning, planting, and fundraising in and for parks.

In light of the SDGs and global discourse surrounding climate change mitigations and adaptations in urban development, stakeholders positioned greenspace as an avenue through which cities can attend to improving quantifiable metrics for biodiversity and health in an orientation of political action. In light of increasingly limited funding, interviews highlighted the value of greenspace for uniting sectors that have been historically siloed, especially in relation to land management and public healthcare. They also noted the value of global discourse surrounding sustainability, pandemic ‘recovery,’ and climate crisis for greater attention to land and ecosystems health as a determinant and representation of a broader notion of ‘mental health.’

Greenspace discourse lies relatively at the fringes of movements prioritizing more nuanced and pluralized approaches to mental health understandings, treatments, and care outside of the psychiatric model. In fact, in the operationalization of greenspace, in its statistical correlations and ecological coherences, movements such as ‘green prescribing’ end up medicalizing nature, reframing time spent outdoors as ‘dosages,’ subsuming and reducing human-earth connections into a scientific, biomedical approach. This perpetuates a historical colonization of the outdoors, of the human-less ‘wild’ and dispossessive ‘wild’-making embedded in the dominant public imagination and reflected in policy, which slices humans from the natural world only to, in this instance, knot them back together in loops of service, dosage, and ‘nature-based solutions.’ While a critical approach to greenspace reveals possibilities for change in institutional healthcare futures, it makes clear that there is continual, evident neglect of forms of traditional, Indigenous, and survivor-led knowledge in ways that this change is currently happening.

Engaging Frictions of Climate Psychology

Critically situating greenspace in mental healthcare engages discourses of sustainable development and climate futures, coming into conversation with movements in modern psychology that seek to explicitly link human psychology to nature, and thus operationalize this linkage. Recently, a field of Climate Psychology has emerged to target the emotional distress reported by clients or patients in response to climatic changes, ecological destruction, biodiversity loss, and further anticipated destruction and loss. Climate psychology has grown from a nomenclature, largely aligned with existing clinical terminology, to conceptualize these ‘eco-emotions.’ This vocabulary is becoming increasingly popular in vernaculars, encompassing terms such as ‘eco-anxiety,’ ‘eco-grief,’ ‘pre-traumatic stress,’ and ‘solastalgia’—even ‘collective psychosis.’

In the first semester of my PhD, I had the opportunity to gain certification in climate psychology through a course at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS), where I learned from a diverse panel of scholars and practitioners about the research approaches, therapeutic orientations, and ethics of the field. Perhaps paradoxically to the field’s growing vocabulary, the program widely emphasized the need to step away from a pathologizing discourse for climate distress. It was highly attentive to traditional and Indigenous knowledge in leadership, as well as to plurality in approaches to knowledge and practice. In this light, climate psychology as a vocabulary, a practice, and a movement exposes frictions of knowledge and power between the biomedical model for conceptualizing and treating mental health on one side and the realities of contexts, lived experiences, and knowledges of the earth on the other. These frictions not only urge further inquiry into connections between humans, the earth, and environmental change, but they foreground deeper questions as to how, by whom, for whom, and to what end this inquiry might be done.

Critiques, Knots and Unknowings

Expanding on these two pathways of exploration, I found that attending to ‘mental health’ in the context of urban greenspace and climate change involved a knotting of complex concepts and experiences into shiny, technological words. In urban planning, healthy greenspaces become ‘natural capital,’ ‘ecosystem services’ and ‘nature-based solutions’ that provide strategy for ‘climate change mitigations and adaptations.’ Even the word ‘greenspace’ itself, connoting an aesthetics of ‘tamed,’ ‘manicured,’ or ‘managed’ nature, technifies these landscapes in a way that may remove their messier regenerative processes, impeding the growth of healthy ecosystems. In parallel, in psychological healthcare, a diagnostic-esque language adapts already-nebulous terms for clinical conditions, such as anxiety and trauma, to an ‘eco’ orientation. These vocabularies have utility, especially in politics, for they draw on scientific and technological orthodoxies that attract awareness and funding. They may also help people make sense of their own experiences by employing predesigned conceptual tools for them. However, in falling into this systemic authority, following this sort of utility, there is the danger that the conceptual knots these words contain end up neglecting or usurping other, often marginalized, understandings and possibilities.

Prior to my MSc, I was a part of an ethnographic project conducting fieldwork in villages of rural Myanmar. There, I spoke with subsistence farmers about life and ecological changes they were experiencing amid climatic shifts and the quasi-democratization of the Burmese central government—this being in the mid-2010s, before the 2021 military coup and subsequent resurgence of an ongoing civil war of people’s resistance. Hearing about villagers’ experiences of challenge and suffering related to, particularly, prolonged droughts and mining, drove me to develop and follow questions I had from my undergraduate degree in psychology about what, exactly, we are identifying, diluting, or silencing when we talk about relationships between humans, other species, and a holistic earth, as well as the wide catchment that falls under ‘mental health.’ Questioning these complexities allies with the praxis of social justice perspectives and other survivor movements, such as Mad studies, that give priority to lived experience and experiential knowledge.

In the first year of my PhD in Social Anthropology, a large curiosity of mine therefore revolves around a larger scoping: of words, languages, and stories held by people outside of clinical and governance domains to describe their connections with and between the earth, climate change, and notions of mental health and wellbeing. People often, to varying extents, resonate with their environments, particularly with the ‘natural world’ in ways that may engage legacy, memory, identity, relationality, mind and imagination. In the grand scope of things, having a relationship with the earth, whatever that relationship is or is not, is inescapable. But what are the words and frames put on this engagement in particular contexts? What do people see in the earth around them, in the lands they feel affinity with? What does it mean, ‘the wild,’ to whom, and to what end? And the big, perhaps overwhelming question: in an age of drastic climate and ecological change, how do people reconcile themselves, story themselves, in relation to earth and its increasingly ominous future?

Like the redwood octopus of Pitlochry, or a field of snowdrops, even patterns, or myriad attempts at standardization, are ultimately chaotic. There is a lot here that I’ve missed; there is also an inherent privilege in staying with knots and unknowings, in sitting calmly, comfortably, and safely on the open ground, in doing a PhD as yet another single, uncomfortable linguistic representation of intensely sensory, visceral, vastly varying and personal experiences. At the very least, my aim is that my work will contribute to foregrounding complexities, in people and in the earth more widely, rather than distillations in today’s changing worlds.

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Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.

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5 COMMENTS

  1. “Like the redwood octopus of Pitlochry, or a field of snowdrops, even patterns, or myriad attempts at standardization, are ultimately chaotic. There is a lot here that I’ve missed;”

    You might try doing some research into sacred geometry, since it is how the intelligent designer of God, designed everything from your DNA, to the beauty of the flowers, the spirals of a pinecone, to the shape of the constellations. There is a mathematical order that does prevail in nature, amidst the seeming chaos, of man’s insanely bad systems.

    I agree, spending time in God’s green earth is beneficial to one’s “mental health.” What was that song, when I was healing from my anticholinergic toxidrome poisonings? Oh yes, I was “Chasing Cars,” and doing a lot of gardening – “Show me a garden that’s bursting into life” – during my healing journey.

    … which is, sadly, largely 100% the opposite, of how today’s “medical professionals” believe they should “help” those trying to heal from psychiatry’s current, inappropriate “standard of care” / systemic, anticholinergic toxidrome poisonings … and other iatrogenic illness creation, for profit.

    Let’s hope and pray that some day soon, there will be a much needed paradigm change, within the pretty much 100% wrong, scientifically “invalid,” DSM deluded “mental health” industries.

    https://psychrights.org/2013/130429NIMHTransformingDiagnosis.htm

    Spending time in nature does help people heal … being locked up in a windowless hospital room, and neurotoxic poisoned, does NOT. But that is what is profitable for psychiatry, psychology, and mainstream medicine, today.

    And “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

    So let’s hope the Covid debacle has helped to divide the doctors, between the ones who actually want to help their clients, and the greed only inspired doctors.

    Just look at the architecture, those industries with the biggest and best buildings, are the too greedy industries … and as a small, ethical banker’s daughter, who was attacked by insane “mental health” workers decades ago. I know the wrong bankers and a run amok, paternalistic, systemic child abuse covering up, DSM deluded medical community (and their paternalistic, systemic child abuse covering up, greed only inspired, “religious partners”)

    https://books.google.com/books?id=xI01AlxH1uAC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v
    =onepage&q&f=false

    … are destroying our country, from within … due to their avarice.

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