New discoveries show an alarming lack of diversity – in participants and geography – in a rapidly evolving field of research examining the effects of nature on mental health. Credit: Joshua Brown / UVM

New research shows that a rapidly evolving field of environmental science – which measures the effects of nature on human well-being – has a diversity problem that threatens its ability to make universal scientific claims.

The field, which combines psychology and environmental research, has created a number of important studies detailing the benefits of nature, forests and parks on human well-being and mental health, including happiness, depression and anxiety. The findings are popularized by books such as Your brain on nature and The repair of naturewhich protect the great benefits of outdoor health.

But when researchers at the University of Vermont analyzed a decade of research in this area – 174 peer-reviewed studies from 2010 to 2020 – they found that study participants were predominantly white and that BIPOC communities (blacks, locals, people of color) were severely understaffed. presented. . More than 95% of the research was conducted in high-income Western countries in North America, Europe and East Asia – or Western nations such as South Africa – while research in the Global South was largely absent. Less than 4% of surveys were conducted in middle-income countries, such as India, without surveys in low-income countries.

This narrow sample of humanity makes it difficult for the field to make credible universal scientific claims, say researchers who published their findings today in Ongoing research in the field of environmental sustainability.

“This area has great potential to address pressing issues – from the global mental health crisis to global sustainability efforts – but to do so, we need to better reflect the diversity of the world’s population, cultures and values,” he said. author Carlos Andres Gallegos-Riofrio of the Gund Institute for the Environment at the University of Vermont.

Just one study in Africa? This is strange

Galegos-Riofrio credits a landmark analysis for 2012 of human psychology and behavioral science to inspire research. This earlier team, led by Joseph Henry, highlighted the problem of drawing universal conclusions about human behavior from experiments that mainly used students from countries that are COUNTRIES (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic). Given that most people live in non-COUNTRY nations, with different styles of perception, reasoning and values, Henry’s team argues that WEIRD research cannot reliably support universal scientific claims.

The UVM team applied Henry’s lens, but delved into the question of ethnicity to study the mental health benefits of nature. Although they expected Western bias, they were surprised by the level of bias: the sample populations were not only mostly from COUNTRIES – but predominantly white.

Researchers were also surprised that 62% of surveys did not report ethnicity at all (although the team acknowledged that some surveys used anonymous data sources, such as Twitter). Of the 174 studies, only one was conducted in Africa (South Africa) and one study was conducted in South America (Colombia) – none of them traced ethnicity. Only one study focuses on the indigenous peoples of North America.

“We hope our study is a wake-up call for this promising area that is bringing about positive change,” said co-author Rachel Gould of the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources at UVM and the Gund Institute for the Environment. “A more inclusive and diverse field that encompasses the research needs of the global community – and the full range of ways in which people interact with the non-human world – will ultimately be more impactful.

In addition to studying ethnicity and geography, the team also explores cultural values. They report that many studies conceptualize the human-nature relationship in human-oriented, individualistic, and derivational terms, rather than concepts such as reciprocity, responsibility, and kinship, which are more common in many local and other non-Western cultures, researchers say.

How to expand the field

The team offers several recommendations, including: more collaboration with different communities, greater diversity of participants, improved demographic tracking, a stronger focus on the global south, culturally sensitive experiments and tools, training for intercultural research and a focus on justice and fairness. Funding agencies and foundations need to encourage more diversity – in survey participants and settings – in their calls for funding, researchers say.

The team also emphasizes the importance of diversifying environmental science, with better support for students and teachers from different backgrounds and greater collaboration with different communities. Research by Dorset Taylor and others shows this BIPOC scientists are underrepresented in American environmental institutions and that environmental issues of BIPOC communities are greatly underestimated.

“We need all cultures to work together to deal with the global emergencies we face,” said Amaya Carasco, co-author and student at UVM. “It requires an understanding of what is universal in the human-nature relationship and what is culturally specific. These insights are crucial to foster social change and require research to be more inclusive. We need all hands on deck.”

The study is entitled: “Chronic Deficiency Diversity and Pluralism in Research on Natural Effects on Mental Health: A Planetary Health Problem.” The research team also included Hassan Arab, a graduate researcher at Wayne University.

Assessing the morality of actions established as culturally universal

More information:
Chronic diversity and pluralism deficits in research into the natural effects of mental health: a global health problem, Ongoing research in the field of environmental sustainability (2022). DOI: 10.1016 / j.crsust.2022.100148

Provided by the University of Vermont

Quote: Nature helps mental health, research says, but only for rich, white people? (2022, May 6) extracted on May 8, 2022 from

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