Let Nature Nurture Your Mind All Year

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One of the things I love most about my job is the fact that I’m able to help address some of the major issues impacting our society. I’m also fortunate to work with colleagues who share my passion for making a positive social impact. During discussions leading up to Mental Health Awareness Month, Samantha Loyola and I discovered our mutual admiration for nature and its profound impact on mental health. We discovered we both include green and blue spaces as part of our own mental health toolkits.

This year’s Mental Health America theme, “Look Around, Look Within,” draws our attention to the impact of our surroundings. Sam and I sat down to explore the science behind the benefits we have both experienced from nature and how companies can support employees’ mental health, their local communities and positively impact the environment through green and blue spaces.

Sam Loyola (SL): It’s so great to talk with you about our mutual admiration and advocacy for green and blue spaces on mental health. I know we both believe in a scientific approach, which is why it’s encouraging to see the field of ecopsychology really blossom and begin to penetrate public awareness over the last several years. Can you tell me where your passion for the nature-mental health connection began and what research has come out about the impact of green spaces like parks, forests, community gardens, etc.?

Kay Brungs Laud (KBL): I have always been drawn to nature from hiking in the mountains to tending my urban garden, and everything in between, but it wasn’t until the COVID-19 pandemic forced me to stay home that I noticed the impact the lack of green space had on my mental health. During this time, we were also fostering a 3-year-old dog who had clearly been neglected; he didn’t trust people and acted as if he had never been outside when we took him out in our yard, and he couldn't stand the city noises around our house.

One weekend, we decided to try something for all of our mental well-being, and we drove 30-minutes from our house to a forest preserve. Almost immediately, we saw a change in the overall well-being of our foster dog; he came out of his shell, and for the first time in three weeks he seemed completely at ease. After that walk, I became fascinated with the benefits green spaces can have and read a few articles in National Geographic on the topic, watched a few documentaries and eventually started reading more science-based journals. For context, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines green space as “land that is partly or completely covered with grass, trees, shrubs or other vegetation.” The journal Nature published an article in April 2021, “Associations between green/blue spaces and mental health across 18 countries,” in which the researchers surveyed more than 16,300 people. The study concluded a connection to nature is associated with positive well-being and decreases depressive symptoms. If you are interested in learning more about this growing field of research on the mental health benefits of nature, National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has a great list of resources on its website.

Sam, I know you are passionate about the impact of blue spaces on mental health. Can you share more about this area of interest?

SL: Of course, I am always happy to talk about blue spaces. Research on the impact of blue spaces such as oceans, beaches, lakes and rivers on well-being has increased over the past 10 years. Similar to green spaces, blue spaces have a proven impact on mental health. Recently, a literature review in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health suggested engaging with blue spaces reduces stress and anxiety and improves markers of psychological well-being. For me, open water swimming helped my mental state tremendously during a dark time and connecting with nature in all its forms gave me another tool in the toolbox to support my mental health.

That also brings us to another great point, which is access. It is widely recognized that there is an access issue when it comes to natural spaces, which can be connected to economic, political and social factors. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

KBL: Sadly, you are spot on, there is an access issue but there are a few silver linings. Research shows health benefits are not only achieved through access to total immersive blue and green spaces—even one live tree in a neighborhood has been shown to provide mental, physical and environmental health benefits. It is critical that cities invest in their green and blue spaces, and ensure public transportation makes these spaces more accessible to all residents. For more information, Scenic America recently published an article about the environmental and health benefits of urban green spaces.

SL: I really like what you said about investment at the local, city, state and country-wide level because we know that the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (11.7) proposes that “by 2030, [UN states should] provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces,” particularly for women and children, older persons and people living with disabilities.

There is more than one way to address inequitable access, and I think making positive steps toward safety, inclusivity and I might even throw proximity in there are good places to start. Education also plays an important role as it can promote awareness about the benefits of green and blue spaces, normalize the habit of seeking out these spaces to benefit mental health and how to do so in environmentally sustainable ways.

What can companies do to support the benefits of blue and green spaces for employees and their communities?

KBL: We know green and blue spaces not only have positive benefits to mental and physical health but to environmental health as well. Companies can:

  • Donate to local green and blue spaces: Identify organizations that advocate for the development and/or maintenance of green and blue spaces in the communities your business operates.
  • Provide employee volunteer opportunities: Provide all employees with opportunities to take time off to volunteer in nature. For example, coordinate a companywide volunteer day at a local park, forest preserve, lake or shoreline to help maintain the space, clean up trash and/or build out needed infrastructure.
  • Incorporate nature into your benefits: Provide employees with green and blue days off. Encourage your employees to take time off to disconnect from their day-to-day stressors and reconnect with nature.
  • Create an ongoing education series: Look to partner with experts who can provide resources and information to your employees about how they can engage with the natural environment in sustainable ways and improve their mental health by spending time in nature.
  • Help extend access to green and blue spaces: Collaborate with or support organizations that are removing barriers to access green and blue spaces.
  • Connect nature initiatives to your impact reporting: Look for ways you can incorporate work with green and blue spaces into your company’s overall sustainability plan and/or environmental, social and governance initiatives. Some of this work can even help offset your company’s carbon footprint.

And of course, we would love to talk about more ways Spectrum can help make this a meaningful and authentic program for your company.

SL: Thank you, Kay. We’re so lucky to have you advocating for issues like this. It’s clear our mental health is closely linked to our surroundings and the natural environment.

Kay, one last question before we wrap. How would you describe your relationship with gardening?

KBL: Ha, you know the answer to this one. It’s definitely a labor of love, a lot of mutual respect and the garden is an amazing teacher. One of the greatest lessons gardening has taught me is the importance of patience (this is not one of my strongest traits). Last summer I planted several plants in our front garden, that I thought had all died. I was really beating myself up thinking I hadn’t chosen the right plants for the space, or that I didn’t give them enough care and had been wasteful with Mother Nature. Well, this spring, all the plants I planted last summer came back! Nature is very much on its own schedule, and with gardening I’ve found when you think something isn’t doing well or has died, take a breath, be patient and give it a season before you jump to any conclusions.

If you’d like to learn more about Spectrum’s Social Impact Knowledge Center, please reach out to Kay directly at: kbrungslaud@spectrumscience.com.


Kay and Sam

Kay Brungs Laud is SVP of Social Impact, and Samantha Loyola is VP of Biopharma at Spectrum. 

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