Is Nature Deficit Disorder even a thing?

Stuck inside web

Dan Mushens examines whether people spending more time indoors could be negatively affecting their health

18th June 2018 by Gareth Jones 0 Comments

If you disregard some flash flooding and thunderstorms, the better weather seems to have finally made an appearance over recent weeks. Our green spaces have been fully utilised, sales of disposable barbeques have spiked and Loch Lomond is plagued by midges.

For some people, summer time heralds the start of not only some welcomed sunshine and lighter evenings, but also an uplift in mood, increased social participation and the restoration of mental health and an overall sense of wellbeing.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a condition that has become internationally recognised since it was first mentioned in an academic research paper by Norman Rosenthal and colleagues in 1984.

It helps to explain the lethargy and changes in mood sufferers experience during autumn and winter months, with improvements often noticed during spring and summer when those affected begin to re-emerge in society and re-engage with the natural environment.

It was while doing some online research into SAD that I came across a theory coined by Richard Louv in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods. He suggests that human beings, especially children, are spending a greater amount of time indoors leading to a range of consequences such as behavioural problems, attention deficits, obesity, depression and loneliness.

Dan Mushens

Dan Mushens

He refers to his theory as Nature Deficit Disorder and although not a medical diagnosis, he states it serves as a ‘unique description of the human cost of alienating oneself from the natural world’.

He attributes three causes for this apparent lack of engagement with the earth’s natural landscape and features, all of which have a detrimental impact on the human ability to build meaningful relationships and successfully navigate through life’s journey.

A risk averse parenting style is said to be preventing children from exploring outdoors with perceived ‘stranger danger’ said to be a leading concern. The loss of natural surroundings in a child’s community or city is said to be the second cause, with the advancement of technology and access to mobile phones, tablets and computer games the final reason.

Reading about Nature Deficit Disorder reminded me of similarities to Eco-therapy, an intervention which advocates the need for people to connect with nature to act as a therapeutic treatment to boost mental wellbeing.

From personal experience, I remember childhood involving climbing trees, skimming stones, splashing around in the sea, building sandcastles, mountain biking, canoeing, camping and swimming as well as a plethora of other earth-embracing activities. It saddens me to contemplate today’s youth not having similar experiences.

However, I’m the first to admit that the journey to adulthood often stifles our ability to engage in such leisurely pursuits. Work commitments can often see more time spent in office based environments than in woodland. And commuting, either on public transport or in cars can eat into any free time which could otherwise be allocated to hugging trees.

Personally, becoming a father to twins has seen an increase in my own connection with nature. I want my children to have the experiences I was afforded so evenings and weekends are largely spent in Glasgow’s abundance of parks, kicking the ball around or teaching them how to ride their bike. Taking the kids out increases my own participation in the natural environment and it affords me the opportunity to clear my mind and think clearly.

Connecting with the natural environment as a source of improving mental health and wellbeing is easily accessible and cost free. Next time you’re sat at your desk having your lunch in front of the computer screen, maybe you could make the conscious decision to get outside and dine al fresco. What the hell, maybe even take your socks and shoes off and walk on the grass barefoot. When was the last time you did that?

Nature, exercise and mental health are closely related in many ways. With this in mind, my employer, a mental health charity called Penumbra, supports around 1000 young people and adults each week across Scotland.

In early 2016 we launched an initiative called ‘fit150’ to promote mental health and wellbeing for all – the people we support and the workforce alike.

With a considerable evidence base and recognising that all forms of physical exertion lead to increased mental wellness, Penumbra actively promotes UK guidance which suggests adults should aim to be active for at least 150 minutes per week.

The fit150 initiative encompasses a range of activities which can be easily achieved by most of us. Getting off the bus a few stops earlier and walking the remainder of the journey or using the stairs instead of the lift all contribute to additional exertion and increased heart rate.

It’s often said that every journey starts with a single step, if you make it a step into the natural environment then who knows what the healing power may be.

Dan Mushens is a recovery practitioner for Scottish mental health charity Penumbra