Life by the coast may sound pretty pleasant – Californian sunshine or Riviera cuisine are both definite pluses for quality of life. But a new study exploring the rather colder climes of the English coastline suggest that even people living in cloudy Britain may experience benefits from living near the sea.
Nature and mental health
A cross-sectional study published in Health and Place has suggested a link between proximity to the coast and a lower likelihood of self-reported poor mental health. Researchers at the University of Exeter explored data from nearly 26,000 people around Britain. People from the lowest socioeconomic groups living in urban populations had a roughly 40% lower chance of reporting mental health disorders if they lived within 1km of the coast as opposed to inland respondents more than 50km inland. The findings add to a body of evidence suggesting that living near nature spaces is a boost to mental health, and also add to the smaller research pool (pun not intended) around blue spaces, which specifically relate to natural areas of water, as opposed to the more well-studied green spaces, such as parks or forests.
These previous studies, says first author Jo Garrett, a researcher at Exeter’s European Centre for Environment and Human Health, had identified improvements in general health in populations closer to the coastline, and she and her team wanted to look more closely at mental health. “We know how important mental health is. One in six people suffers from a mental health disorder at any one time in this country,” she explained.
Garrett and her team analyzed the Health Survey for England, a national analysis of health outcomes across socioeconomic backgrounds. The Survey includes the GHQ-12, a short series of questions that aim to identify low-level mental health problems in a wide population. Comparing the data for adults in urban areas (the researchers excluded rural areas from their analysis) the researchers examined the GHQ-12 scores for groups of respondents living in five categories of coastline proximity.
Closer to the coast
Garrett explains that the researchers initially analyzed the data as a whole, which suggested a roughly 20% reduction in self-reported poor mental health for those near to the coast as opposed to those living distantly. But once they broke down the respondents by socioeconomic class, they saw that the effect remained only for the poorest respondents. The benefit manifested as a 40% lower risk for those living within a kilometer of the coast as compared to more than 50km away, and a 25% lower risk for those living between one and five kilometers from the sea in the same comparison.
Why does this benefit manifest only in the lowest socioeconomic bracket? Garrett says there are several explanations, including one of access, “Those with more disposable income are able to access nature; they can drive to the coast or other natural environments, so living close to nature is not so important.”
Coastal visit information required
The study was not without its limitations; the cross-sectional design could not prove causality. There was additionally no relationship between GHQ-12 outcome and proximity to freshwater blue spaces, such as lakes – further research will need to explain these disparities. Crucially, there was also no way for the researchers to determine whether people living in cities near the coast actually made use of their access to nature on a regular basis. On this, Garrett says to watch out for future studies, “We are currently working on a European project called Blue Health, where we are looking at exactly that; we have surveys go out internationally to 18,000 people where we ask them about their most recent visit to a blue space.”
As the number of us living in urban spaces increases – that figure now stands at over 83% in the UK, higher than at any point in the last 60 years – how we construct our cities will need to change, and access to nature will be a key aspect of those changes, as Garrett sums up: “For those on a lower household income who might have less monetary resources, living close to these environments is really important; for me, this shows that living by nature is really important for people’s mental health and that having good access for everyone is really important.”
Reference: Garrett, J.K. et al, (2019). Coastal proximity and mental health among urban adults in England: The moderating effect of household income. Health & Place, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.healthplace.2019.102200