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Magda Stoczkiewicz is director of Friends of the Earth Europe.
Every year, a quarter of Europeans suffer from depression or anxiety – accounting for half of all chronic sick leave. These, alongside other non-communicable diseases (such as diabetes, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases), have reached epidemic proportions in Europe – often linked to ‘lifestyle’ risks such as high blood pressure, lack of physical activity, poor air quality and obesity. 86% of deaths in Europe are from these diseases, and it’s pressuring over-burdened health services.
Recent research offers a glimpse of how nature access and protection could make an unexpected contribution to healing an ailing, stressed-out population. It could also help to restore well-being to a middle-aged and frazzled European Union.
According to a growing body of evidence, nature is an under-recognised healer. Access to nature helps to reduce depression, stress, and obesity, and to boost overall well-being, physical activity, and children’s development. For example, doctors prescribe fewer anti-depressants in urban areas that contain more trees. Middle-aged men in deprived urban areas have a 16% lower risk of dying when they live close to nature. Pregnant women with good access to nature areas record lower blood pressure and give birth to larger babies.
But the well-being benefits of nature are not spread equally – poorer city neighbourhoods too often lack access to nature and have fewer opportunities for healthy activities. In one study, children living in deprived areas were found to be nine times less likely to have access to nature and places to play; and more likely to experience higher obesity and inactivity levels.