Declines in outdoor activities and park use during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic were linked to reductions in mental health measures for teens and young adults from middle school through college, according to two new studies led by North Carolina State University researchers.
The studies build evidence for the mental health benefits of nature’s medicine – and the potential hazards of restricting access, researchers say.
“This is an opportunity for anyone concerned about the health and well-being of future generations to focus on the power of parks when it comes to mental health promotion, and to figure out what we can do to make sure all segments of the population have access to enjoy the health-related benefits that parks can provide,” said Lincoln Larson, an associate professor of parks, recreation and tourism management at NC State.
Larson was the lead author of a study looking at factors linked to emotional distress in college students. Published in the journal Environmental Research, the study involved a survey of 1,280 college students at four large public universities in the United States, including at NC State. Researchers wanted to understand why and how students’ outdoor recreation and park use changed in March through May of 2020, and how that related to their mental health. They asked students to rate their use of parks and other outdoor spaces and their levels of emotional distress before and during the pandemic.
They found 54% of students said they reduced their park use during the pandemic, and about two-thirds reduced outdoor activities. College students who were more worried about COVID-19 were more likely to limit outdoor recreation. Students who identified as Asian or Black were more likely to limit their park use than students of other ethnicities or races.
“It is becoming apparent that historically marginalized populations are having an even harder time enjoying the benefits that come from outdoor recreation during the pandemic,” Larson said.
Emotional distress was “widespread,” researchers reported. Reducing park use was one of the factors linked with higher levels of emotional distress, along with knowing someone who had COVID-19, and other factors. Students who lived in counties with larger areas of national or state parks per capita were likely to report lower levels of emotional distress.
“Reducing park use was one of the stronger predictors of emotional distress; people who stopped using parks suffered worse mental health impacts in the early stages of the pandemic,” Larson said. “Other studies have shown that any contact with nature, whether or not it’s in a park, can be beneficial. For college students, public parks may be particularly important. If parks are available where students live, especially if students are visiting these parks, then they are likely to experience more positive mental health outcomes.”
In a second study published in the journal Sustainability, another team of researchers found that as young people’s outdoor activity participation decreased during the pandemic, their connection to nature decreased as well. “Connection to nature” is a measure of a person’s comfort and enjoyment of time in nature. They also saw that this plays a role in their mental well-being.
Researchers surveyed 624 youth aged 10 to 18 years from across the United States between April and June of 2020. They asked them how often they participated in outdoor activities like bicycling outside, playing sports, or going for walks or runs, and how often they participated in nature-based outdoor activities like hiking, hunting, and fishing. They also asked youth about their connection …….