The following post is an interview with Professor Jamie Pearce and Professor Sarah Curtis about how our surroundings affect our health. It was originally posted in April 2017 in the build up to the Edinburgh Science Festival.
What might the audience expert to learn from this event?
While there are many things we can do as individuals to improve our health and wellbeing, action to create a healthier environment also requires community, societal and political responses. We will report on research that explores how and why the places where we live, work and play affect our mental health, and, with the help of the audience, identify some likely ways to make our environment healthier.
People might expect that being in pleasant surroundings can lift our moods, but please can you briefly outline how your research goes beyond this?
We know from lots of research over many years that the places in which we live, work and play can be both beneficial and detrimental to our health and mental wellbeing. Our research has shown that ‘therapeutic’ properties of places include high levels of community cohesion, availability and accessibility of high quality green spaces, and investment in infrastructure to support physical activity, such as cycle paths.
On the other hand, places can be damaging to our mental health if, for example, they are characterised by high levels of crime, pollution, poor physical conditions and a lack of secure and rewarding employment opportunities. Our research also explores how different groups vary in their response to their environment. For instance, the mental health benefits of living in a greener environment are greater for those who are relatively poor, as compared with for wealthier groups. This finding is important, since the Scottish Government and other policymakers need to know what works in terms of environmental planning to reduce health inequalities.
Why is now a good time to highlight the findings of your work?
Like many other countries, mental health in Scotland is a major public health challenge. We know that many mental health outcomes are significantly poorer in Scotland than they are in England. It is estimated that around one in three people are affected by mental illness in any one year. People in the most socially disadvantaged communities are disproportionately affected. For example, our work has shown that adults living in the most deprived parts of Scotland are almost three times as likely to have common mental health problems as those in the least deprived areas.
It is no wonder that improving mental health is a priority for the Scottish Government and is one of 55 national indicators chosen to chart the country’s progress towards the achievement of our National Outcomes – wellbeing targets set by the Scottish Government.
Can you give one or two examples of how people might make simple changes to their surroundings to improve their wellbeing?
Our research has shown very clearly that so much to do with our health is outside of our personal control. To make substantial improvements to our health – including mental wellbeing – requires us to think and act collectively. As individuals, we can get involved in helping to make the places we live more supportive for mental health and wellbeing through getting involved in community initiatives, making therapeutic spaces more accessible, and ensuring our workplaces are supportive.
Can you highlight one or two outcomes from your research that have surprised you?
One of the most fascinating findings from our recent research is that the circumstances early in our lives can have lasting lifelong implications. For example, we have found that characteristics of the places we live during our childhood years can affect mental health and cognitive ageing much later in life. These findings change the way in which we think about the relationships between places and health; to date we have probably not appreciated quite how important places are for our health over our whole lives. It also means that changes we make to our environment now to make places better for mental health are likely to benefit the next generation as well as ourselves.
What is your motivation for bringing your research to the Science Festival?
We think that improving mental health is a major challenge for Scotland and other countries in the UK. To make substantial and sustained progress will require some joined-up thinking, which recognises that mental health is influenced by a range of social, political and environmental factors in our communities. Having conversations about these issues, and identifying possible solutions to such important challenges, is an important way of helping to make sure that important research findings are acted on.