COVID-19 restrictions imposed by many countries have curtailed people's access to natural spaces. Such access is known to be positively related to mental health. This study tested two related hypotheses: (1) People will show greater symptoms of depression and anxiety under lockdown conditions that did not allow contact with outdoor nature spaces; and (2) Where access to public outdoor nature spaces was strictly restricted, people with blue/green nature view or with access to private outdoor spaces will show fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety, and a more positive mood.
A 54-item online survey was distributed internationally between mid-April and early May, 2020 – corresponding to the time when most European countries had spent at least one month under lockdown. In addition to collecting demographic information, the survey also asked participants (a) to complete a brief mental health assessment focusing on depression and anxiety and (b) to provide information about their contact with outdoor nature, pre- and post-lockdown. Two broad categories of nature contact were addressed: general accessibility and individual accessibility. “General accessibility” was defined in relation to levels of nature contact as allowed by different countries or regions during lockdown. “Individual accessibility” was defined in relation to two home characteristics: (a) window views of natural features and (b) private outdoor space availability.
Testing for hypothesis 1 was based on 5218 responses from nine countries: Spain, United Kingdom, Germany, France, United States, Portugal, Italy, New Zealand and Mexico. Testing for hypothesis 2 was based on a subset of these responses. This subset consisted of 3403 responses from Spain. In addition to having a higher number of responses than most of the other countries, Spain also had one of the most severe lockdowns in Europe.
Results relating to the first hypothesis showed that greater severity of lockdown, including restricted access to nature, was associated with greater odds of depression and anxiety. For those under the most strict lockdown conditions, contact with nature from home reduced the likelihood of depression and anxiety. Results relating to the second hypothesis showed that people under strict lockdown in Spain perceived that views of nature and accessible outdoor space helped them cope with lockdown measures. Responses from Spain also indicated that more views of nature and more outdoor space reduced people's risk of depression and anxiety. Access to a garden/patio seemed to provide more mental health benefits than access to a balcony or to shared or public outdoor spaces. Individuals with accessible outdoor spaces reported more positive emotions than individuals with no accessible outdoor spaces. This difference, however, was significant both during and before lockdown. This finding could suggest that the positive effect of blue/green spaces is also significant under normal circumstances. This study also found that views of nature became more important when direct contact with nature was severely limited. “These findings can help decision-makers in developing potential future lockdown measures to mitigate the negative impacts, helping people to be more resilient and maintain better mental health, using the benefits that ecosystem services are providing us.”