Science Says ‘Go Outside and You’ll Feel Better!’
I recently came across a Reuters story on a University of Essex study discussing the impact of spending time outside on mental health. ‘Five minutes in the green can boost self esteem,’ the title says. Now, this is actually a study supported by my own anecdata: When I go outside, I do indeed experience a mood improvement, and I know a lot of other folks who feel the same way. So this post isn’t about picking this study apart.
It’s about looking at the framing of the study, because that’s what I think is interesting.
What the study showed is that spending five minutes in a green area, especially if it has water, can have mental health benefits for people, although young folks and people with mental illness experienced the most significant changes. And the way I’m seeing the study reported, the burden is being placed solely on the individual. You need to go outside. You need to spend more time in green spaces. You need to make improvements in your mental health. It only takes five minutes! Get with the program! (P.S. It would be nice if you exercised while you were at it because otherwise you might get fat.)
Are there maybe some obstacles to spending time in green spaces? Let’s explore some of them, shall we?
What about accessibility? Let’s assume you’re a wheelchair user living in an urban area. Can you access a park via public transit? If you get to a park, are the paths navigable? Are you a scooter user? Is it possible for you to get to a park on your own, or do you need a buddy to manhandle your scooter onto a bus for you since a lot of buses are poorly equipped for scooters? Do you use a service animal? Are you going to get hassled on your way to/while in the park?
What about time? If you have odd working hours or you’re caring for children or you’re relying on public transit in a city with poor transit? How are you going to make the time to get outside if the nearest park is a 30 minute trip?
What if you have multiple chemical sensitivity and a park is using pesticides?
What if you have social anxiety disorder that makes it difficult to leave your home?
What if a park is in an unsafe area?
The framing of this study kind of exemplifies the medical model of disability; it’s all about things you, the individual, need to do. You are disabled by yourself, not by the world around you. Here in the US, there’s an especially strong emphasis on personal responsibility that I see coming up in disability narratives a lot. It’s that emphasis that says we should cut funding to social programs for people with disabilities because, well, they should take responsibility for themselves! It’s that emphasis that says that accommodations are too much of an obstacle for businesses because, well, people with disabilities should be able to sort it out on their own! The burden is on the individual to figure it out.
What I highlighted when I discussed some of the obstacles to ‘just’ getting into a park for five minutes is the social model. These are failings of society, not you as a person. Being told to ‘just’ go to the park for five minutes a day isn’t enough. You may already be a fan of trees and green spaces and be unable to get to the park because society has decided to make that difficult for you. What we should be concluding from this study is not ‘hey, people should go to the park more!’ but ‘hey, we should make it possible for people who want to go to the park to do that! That would be awesome!’
And what the reports I’ve seen on this study remind me of, over and over, is that we live in a society where disability is deemed to be your fault and your responsibility. Accommodation is not viewed as a social responsibility, full inclusion of people with disabilities is not regarded as a priority, and making spaces welcoming and friendly to as many human beings as possible simply isn’t important. What is important appears to be looking for yet another way to remind people that their disabilities are their own responsibility and that if they just did more maybe they wouldn’t be so disabled.
If you’re the park-going type, what obstacles do you experience in your community when it comes to accessing parks and other green spaces?