Study shows smartphone app could be a ‘green prescription’ for mental health

A study that prompted users to record the ‘good things’ in nature in urban areas, such as trees, flowers and birds, has found that a smartphone app can bring clinically significant improvements in mental health.

A University of Derby team led by Professor Miles Richardson and involving colleagues from the University of Sheffield, examined the responses of more than 582 residents of Sheffield, including 150 people with a mental health condition.

When near an urban green space, they were prompted by the research app to notice and record the good things in nature every day for one week.

The findings, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, show a clinically significant and positive effect on wellbeing not just at the end of the seven-day period, but one month later when a follow-up assessment was carried out.

This was particularly the case for people:

  • With mental health difficulties
  • Who had spent more time outdoors as children
  • Who had spent little time outdoors in the 12 months prior to taking part in the study.

Miles Richardson, professor of Human Factors and Nature Connectedness at the University of Derby, said the study showed promise that a smartphone-based ‘green prescription’ to connect with nature in urban areas could play a role in delivering mental health and wellbeing.

He explained: “Providing everyday opportunities to improve wellbeing and reduce health inequalities through engaging with urban nature with a brief, portable, widely accessible and cost-effective smartphone app intervention is of interest to public health organizations seeking solutions to mental health crises in an increasingly urbanized society.”

Dr. Kirsten McEwan, senior researcher at the University of Derby, said: “Adults spend, on average, less than 8 percent of their time outside, so to see the positive impact it had on those who spend little time outdoors suggests that there is a need for engagement with nature in everyday life. Just noticing simple things in nature, such as trees, skies, flowers, birds and wildlife, can have a beneficial impact.”

David Sheffield, Professor of Psychology at the University of Derby, said: “The findings also provide evidence that exposure to nature in childhood is important to help adults achieve a sense of wellbeing by renewing and reigniting that connection.”

The University of Derby team and Furthermore, the company which developed the app for the study, are working with walking app Go Jauntly on a new version which could be rolled out in 2020.

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