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Connecting Biodiversity With Mental Health and Wellbeing — A Review of Methods and Disciplinary Perspectives

Authors:
  • University of Melbourne and Cesar Australia

Abstract and Figures

Biodiversity conservation and mental health and wellbeing are of increasing global concern, with growing relevance to planning and policy. A growing body of literature exploring the relationships between biodiversity and mental health and wellbeing—based on early research conducted largely from social science perspectives—suggests that particular qualities within natural environments confer particular benefits. Results so far have been inconclusive and inconsistent, contributing to an incohesive body of evidence. While past reviews have focused on reporting variations in results, the present study builds on early reviews by exploring variations from the perspective of author disciplines and the use of different guiding theories, and variables used to measure biodiversity, mental health and wellbeing. This aims to address a research gap in understanding whether research in this topic has become more interdisciplinary or has employed more consistent study designs, which were highlighted as priorities in past reviews, but the progress of which has not yet been explored in depth. We found that research connecting biodiversity and mental health and wellbeing has become only marginally more interdisciplinary in recent years, and there is still a large inconsistency in the use of guiding theories, variables and overall study designs. The variation in disciplinary perspectives and methods reflects a growing interest in this field and the variety of ways researchers are trying to understand and test the complex relationships between biodiversity and mental health and wellbeing. Our study shows that there are unique perspectives that different disciplines can contribute to this body of research and continuing to increase collaboration between disciplines with the use of consistent mixed methods approaches in future may contribute to a more cohesive body of evidence. We provide a framework to conceptualize recommendations for future research, highlighting the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration at multiple scales, and importantly focusing on more specific, mechanistic studies to inform decision-making that provides co-benefits for biodiversity and mental health and wellbeing.
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fevo-10-865727 May 18, 2022 Time: 15:7 # 1
REVIEW
published: 24 May 2022
doi: 10.3389/fevo.2022.865727
Edited by:
Jennifer NW Lim,
University of Wolverhampton,
United Kingdom
Reviewed by:
Donagh Horgan,
University of Strathclyde,
United Kingdom
Agnieszka Anna
Olszewska-Guizzo,
NeuroLandscape Foundation, Poland
*Correspondence:
Madeleine Hedin
mhedin@student.unimelb.edu.au
Specialty section:
This article was submitted to
Urban Ecology,
a section of the journal
Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution
Received: 30 January 2022
Accepted: 25 April 2022
Published: 24 May 2022
Citation:
Hedin M, Hahs AK, Mata L and
Lee K (2022) Connecting Biodiversity
With Mental Health and Wellbeing —
A Review of Methods and Disciplinary
Perspectives.
Front. Ecol. Evol. 10:865727.
doi: 10.3389/fevo.2022.865727
Connecting Biodiversity With Mental
Health and Wellbeing — A Review of
Methods and Disciplinary
Perspectives
Madeleine Hedin*, Amy K. Hahs, Luis Mata and Kate Lee
School of Ecosystem and Forest Sciences, University of Melbourne, Victoria, VIC, Australia
Biodiversity conservation and mental health and wellbeing are of increasing global
concern, with growing relevance to planning and policy. A growing body of literature
exploring the relationships between biodiversity and mental health and wellbeing—
based on early research conducted largely from social science perspectives—suggests
that particular qualities within natural environments confer particular benefits. Results
so far have been inconclusive and inconsistent, contributing to an incohesive body
of evidence. While past reviews have focused on reporting variations in results, the
present study builds on early reviews by exploring variations from the perspective
of author disciplines and the use of different guiding theories, and variables used to
measure biodiversity, mental health and wellbeing. This aims to address a research gap
in understanding whether research in this topic has become more interdisciplinary or
has employed more consistent study designs, which were highlighted as priorities in
past reviews, but the progress of which has not yet been explored in depth. We found
that research connecting biodiversity and mental health and wellbeing has become only
marginally more interdisciplinary in recent years, and there is still a large inconsistency
in the use of guiding theories, variables and overall study designs. The variation in
disciplinary perspectives and methods reflects a growing interest in this field and the
variety of ways researchers are trying to understand and test the complex relationships
between biodiversity and mental health and wellbeing. Our study shows that there are
unique perspectives that different disciplines can contribute to this body of research and
continuing to increase collaboration between disciplines with the use of consistent mixed
methods approaches in future may contribute to a more cohesive body of evidence. We
provide a framework to conceptualize recommendations for future research, highlighting
the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration at multiple scales, and importantly
focusing on more specific, mechanistic studies to inform decision-making that provides
co-benefits for biodiversity and mental health and wellbeing.
Keywords: subjective wellbeing, green prescription, research methods, systematic literature search, species
richness, urban greenspace, interdisciplinary science
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INTRODUCTION
Increasing global urbanization presents significant challenges
for both human mental health and biodiversity (Marselle
et al., 2020). In recent decades, there has been immense
research interest in demonstrating the importance of natural
environments to human health and wellbeing (Beute et al.,
2020;Felappi et al., 2020;Kosanic and Petzold, 2020), which
has produced strong evidence that nature promotes various
dimensions of human health and wellbeing. An initial search
on the Web of Science for research connecting nature
and health and wellbeing (for the years 2006–2021) returns
approximately 800 results. In early research, measures of
greenspace as they relate to health and wellbeing considered
greenspace as a relatively homogenous “green” treatment, such
as assessing the amount of greenness, or merely presence or
absence. The relationships were predominantly explored in the
context of aesthetic preference (Gobster et al., 2007), drawing
upon psychoevolutionary theories such as savannah theory,
which describe our natural affinity for relatively homogenous
greenspaces (Hartig et al., 2011). Attention Restoration Theory
(ART) is another theory that guided early work in this space,
and which has continued to feature strongly in subsequent
research. This theory is based on the ability of a landscape to
renew personal adaptive resources and cognitive abilities to meet
the demands of everyday life (Kaplan and Kaplan, 1989). As
such, early work in this field has been driven from a social
science perspective.
More recently, researchers have been interested in
understanding the mechanisms by which correlations between
health and wellbeing, and different greenspace characteristics
arise. Studies that connect nature and health have highlighted
that particular qualities within a natural space might provide
particular benefits (Thompson Coon et al., 2011;Van den Berg
et al., 2015;Reining et al., 2020). Thus, while earlier work
looked at the quantity of green within an environment, more
recent work seeks to explore more specific qualities of those
environments. From this, a body of research has emerged
which examines health and wellbeing benefits in the context
of the ecological characteristics of particular spaces, such
as naturalness or ecological integrity (Reining et al., 2020).
Measures of biodiversity within a space, such as species richness,
can provide an indication of the ecological functioning of
that space. Additionally, more recent studies have begun to
distinguish different aspects of human health and wellbeing, such
as understanding whether landscapes with ecological benefit can
also provide mental health and wellbeing benefits. This moves
beyond the measures of greenness to uncover complexities
and inform ways to approach the development of synergistic
scenarios for biodiversity conservation and human health
and wellbeing (Giusti and Samuelsson, 2020). The relevant
definitions of biodiversity, mental health and psychological
wellbeing for this research are as follows:
Biodiversity: the variability among all living organisms from all
sources and the ecological complexes of which they are a part; this
includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems
(United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, 2006).
Mental health: a state of wellbeing in which an individual realizes
their own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work
productively and is able to make a contribution to their community
(World Health Organisation, 2018).
Psychological wellbeing: a combination of positive affective states
such as happiness (the hedonic perspective) and functioning with
optimal effectiveness in individual and social life (the eudaimonic
perspective) (Winefield et al., 2012).
More in depth studies of the biological quality of greenspace
are essential for conservation purposes, and benefits to
human mental health and psychological wellbeing are key
for understanding how to best design, manage and conserve
landscapes for both objectives. Understanding synergies between
biodiversity and human wellbeing is particularly important
within urban landscapes, because planners and policy makers
around the globe are seeking to incorporate ecological restoration
or design within the fabric urban environments (Fisher
et al., 2021). Simultaneously, those involved in decision
making are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of
understanding landscapes in the context of social values, and
the health and wellbeing benefits that natural spaces can provide
(Jorgensen and Gobster, 2010).
Given the importance of mental health and psychological
wellbeing to people, there is a growing interest in their
presence as a societal aspiration with increasing relevance to
decision making. There is therefore a need to understand which
social, environmental and economic conditions can provide
optimal population level wellbeing (Balvanera et al., 2016;
Mavoa et al., 2019). However, significant challenges still exist
in connecting research fields of biodiversity and health and
wellbeing, particularly with regard to the lack of consistent
metrics and outcomes explored (Jorgensen and Gobster, 2010).
Numerous studies have demonstrated that biodiversity can
enrich the appreciation of natural spaces (Collar, 2003). Measures
of biodiversity such as species richness or abundance have
been shown to contribute to wellbeing; however, trends are
inconsistent and inconclusive, and complicated largely by the
use of different wellbeing and biodiversity variables (Dallimer
et al., 2012;Fisher et al., 2021). While it has been shown that
people generally perceived natural settings with high levels of
complexity to be favorable (Kaplan and Kaplan, 1989;Southon
et al., 2017), different people have vastly different preferences
for landscapes and there are many environmental, social and
personal factors that influence the benefits obtained from natural
spaces. While some studies have found that objectively measured
biodiversity is positively associated with wellbeing, others have
found either weak positive, no correlation or inverse effects. For
example, while Fuller et al. (2007) and Wolf et al. (2017) found
that higher plant and bird diversity correlated positively with
psychological wellbeing, Dallimer et al. (2012) and Methorst et al.
(2020) found that psychological wellbeing decreased with higher
plant diversity, while no correlations were found for measures
such as butterfly diversity.
In Figure 1 we show the growth in research connecting
biodiversity to health and wellbeing, since 2006. An early work
of this topic by Lovell et al. (2014) reviewed just eight studies,
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FIGURE 1 | Growth in research connecting biodiversity to mental health, between the years 2006–2021. Captions across the top with arrows indicate the years that
have been included in the reviews conducted by Lovell et al. (2014) and Marselle et al. (2019) upon which this current study builds.
which explicitly explored links between biodiversity indicators
and mental health. A more recent review conducted by Marselle
et al. (2019) explored a further 16 studies. In the present
study, we build upon this body of literature, and focus on the
epistemological framing, disciplinary approaches and specific
methodologies used to date. Earlier research connecting health
and biodiversity called for interdisciplinary approaches that
integrate multiple perspectives to guide planning and design
(Chiang et al., 2017). Furthermore, previous reviews (Aerts
et al., 2018;Collins et al., 2020;Methorst et al., 2020) have
focused largely on reporting the variability in results. Reviews
such as Marselle et al. (2019) highlight the need for more
interdisciplinary work and robust experimental designs with
consistent use of metrics, to provide for a more replicable
and cohesive body of evidence of biodiversity-mental health
relationships (Lovell et al., 2014;Chiang et al., 2017;Giusti and
Samuelsson, 2020). There has, however, been little exploration
of how different academic disciplines have contributed to the
body of work so far, and how the use of different metrics
has been evolving.
In order to understand whether there has been progress in
terms of interdisciplinary work or consistent use of metrics,
we aim to compare the 24 earlier studies reported by
Marselle et al. (2019) with more recent works that have been
published since 2018, which explicitly examine relationships
between biodiversity and mental health and/or psychological
wellbeing. In doing so, we seek to address a research gap in
our understanding of how different disciplines have contributed
to this body of research, and how different variables have been
incorporated into study designs and may be contributing to
inconsistencies in results. In order to address this research gap,
we investigate the following research questions:
(1) which academic disciplines have contributed to research
connecting biodiversity and mental health and psychological
wellbeing, and have recent studies become more interdisciplinary
than earlier studies? And (2) are the guiding theories and
methods used in recent studies connecting biodiversity and
mental health and psychological wellbeing similar or different
from earlier studies?
By answering these questions, we seek to contribute to the
current state of research linking biodiversity with health and
wellbeing and how it is evolving based on early recommendations
for interdisciplinary work and consistent use of methods. This
may shed light on the understanding of how different academic
disciplines have contributed to the body of research and highlight
any robust elements of study designs to inform future research.
METHODS
Systematic Search Process
The systematic search conducted by Marselle et al. (2019) and
previously by Lovell et al. (2014) was replicated for this study
using the Web of Science, to capture more recent studies
conducted following the Marselle et al. (2019) review. From this,
it was determined that 28 recent studies met the inclusion
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criteria for full-text review. Data extraction methods used by
Marselle et al. (2019) have been replicated and built upon. In
doing this, together with determining the author disciplines as
with earlier studies, changes in disciplinarity and use of variables
in recent works could be compared.
Using the Web of Science, journal articles which had published
original work between the years 2017–2021 were searched
for. The search terms used and process of identifying papers
appropriate for full-text review are summarized in Table 1
and Figure 2. Although the year 2017 was included in the
review by Marselle et al. (2019), this year was included in the
present study in order to capture any potential studies that
were missed in that review. The search terms (Table 1) and
inclusion and exclusion criteria were adapted from Marselle
et al. (2019), with the aim of being able to build upon
and draw comparisons with the evidence base they obtained
in their review.
Inclusion and Exclusion Criteria
The following inclusion criteria were used during the systematic
search process:
TABLE 1 | Search terms used in the systematic search of the Web of Science.
Search terms Number of studies
Biodiversity and “mental health” 86
Biodiversity and “mental wellbeing” 5
Biodiversity and “mental well-being” 7
Biodiversity and “psychological wellbeing” 5
Biodiversity and “subjective wellbeing” 1
Species diversity and “mental health” 16
Species richness and “mental health 8
Biodiversity and “psychological restoration” 13
Biodiversity and “perceived restorativeness” 12
Species richness and “psychological restoration” 2
Biodiversity and “attention restoration” 10
Total number of studies 165
With each search, only original, peer reviewed journal articles were searched for,
between the years 2017–2021.
FIGURE 2 | Flow chart representing the systematic search and subsequent
processes resulting in the inclusion of 28 additional papers, added to the body
of 24 papers previously reviewed by Marselle et al. (2019).
1. Any peer reviewed study published between
01/01/2017 and 05/04/2021.
2. Any recognized and reliable study design with
any population group, from any country—
English language only.
3. An explicit exploration of one or more biodiversity
variables such as species richness, or a setting protected for
its biodiversity.
4. An explicit exploration of one or more mental
health/wellbeing related outcome, including both objective
and subjective measure of mental health or wellbeing.
Studies were excluded if they did not directly assess (i)
biodiversity and (ii) mental health or mental wellbeing related
outcome measures. Studies assessing preference, or the amount
of greenspace without specifically measuring its biodiversity were
excluded. Studies not reporting primary research such as review
papers, were also excluded. In contrast to Marselle et al. (2019),
studies assessing physiological stress measures were included in
this search. It is acknowledged that including studies written only
in English may have reduced the full scope of research that has
been conducted on this topic.
Author Disciplines
This study builds upon the work of Marselle et al. (2019). Using
the 24 studies they reviewed and the additional 28 recent studies
found, the authorship of each of these studies has been reviewed.
A novel approach was adopted to determine author disciplines
for this research. To do this, Google Scholar author searches were
used to determine author affiliations, “key words” and the topics
on which they had previously written. Author “key words” were
determined to be reflective of the focus discipline of researchers,
as the particular school or organization that they belonged to did
not always reflect their specific research interests or expertise. The
discipline of the author was defined as the research specialization
as self-described by the author on their Google Scholar profile.
Where this information was not available, the school and home
institution to which the author belonged was recorded from the
relevant journal article webpage. This enabled the disciplinary
framing of each study to be determined (acknowledging that this
is a novel and rudimentary approach). For each of the 52 studies
included in this review, each author was recorded and included
in the analysis.
Key Elements of Study Design
Based on potential sources of inconsistency as described in
previous works, key elements of study designs that may be
contributing to inconsistent findings were extracted from each
study:
Guiding psychological theory.
Biodiversity variables.
Mental health and wellbeing variables.
Type of study: correlational or mechanistic.
As seen in Marselle et al. (2019), biodiversity variables
were assigned to one of three levels: (i) ecosystem/habitat,
which includes variables such as landscape heterogeneity and
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structural diversity, (ii) species communities, which includes
variables such as species richness, perceived species richness
and the abundance of a specific taxonomic group, and (iii)
single species level. Mental health and wellbeing variables
were recorded as described in each study. Mental wellbeing
variables were separated out and included attention restoration,
recovery from stress, emotion/mood, and quality of life/life
satisfaction, while “mental health” as a variable was recorded
individually. In this study, a correlational type of study refers
to an observational study that explores relationships between
two or more variables, and may have obtained data using cross-
sectional, longitudinal, cohort or retrospective record methods
MacDonald et al. (2015). A mechanistic study refers to a study
that directly explores the mechanisms of action of a particular
experimental intervention.
Narrative Synthesis
A standardized spreadsheet was used to record all data, and a
process of narrative synthesis, as developed by Popay et al. (2006),
was used to interpret and compare the data from the two time
periods. This type of synthesis has been used in previous reviews,
including Marselle et al. (2019), and is a form of vote-counting
synthesis that is useful when dealing with variables and data
that are heterogenous, and where other forms of quantitative or
statistical analyses are not suitable. This involves extracting key
themes from the literature in order to compare and highlight
points of difference.
RESULTS
Author Disciplines
Similar results emerge for disciplinarity from the two time
periods, with environmental psychology continuing to be the
most prominent author discipline. There has been a slight
increase in interdisciplinary work in recent years, shown
by a greater number of studies including three disciplinary
perspectives (Table 2). The majority of studies, however, continue
to include collaboration from just two disciplines. This is
not necessarily surprising considering the two fields that this
research combines. Again, unsurprisingly, the most prominent
collaboration occurs between the disciplines of environmental
psychology, and ecology or biological sciences. These results
do, however, show that there is quite a diversity of disciplines
that have contributed to the research so far. In recent works
there has also been a greater contribution from the perspectives
TABLE 2 | Summary of results for author disciplines, comparing level of interdisciplinarity between early studies (2006–2017) and recent studies (2018–2021).
Number of disciplines 1 2 3 4
Study (2006–2017) Johansson et al. (2014)
(EP)
Jones (2017) (EE)
Duarte-Tagles et al.
(2015) (PH)
Saw et al. (2015) (BC)
Annerstedt et al. (2012) (EP, PH)
van den Bosch et al. (2015) (EP, PH)
Chiang et al. (2017) (EP, LA)
Cracknell et al. (2016) (EP, MB)
Marselle et al. (2015) (EP, PH)
Marselle et al. (2016) (EP, PH)
Carrus et al. (2015) (EP, EAS)
Cox et al. (2017) (E, BC)
de Jong et al. (2012) (EP, EOM)
Fuller et al. (2007) (EP, BC)
Grahn and Stigsdotter (2010) (EP, LA)
Hoyle et al. (2017) (H, E)
Luck et al. (2011) (EP, E)
King et al. (2017) (BC, E, EAS)
Chang et al. (2016) (LA, H, E)
Dallimer et al. (2012) (EP, BC, E)
Huby et al. (2006) (M, E, BC)
Wolf et al. (2017) (EP, EE, BC)
Björk et al. (2008)
(EP, EOM, EAS, G)
Wheeler et al.
(2015) (EP, PH, E,
M)
Total number of studies 4 14 4 2
Study (2018–2021) Coldwell and Evans
(2018) (BC)
Meyer-Grandbastien
et al. (2020) (E)
Simkin et al. (2021) (EP)
Reining et al. (2020) (G)
Rantakokko et al.
(2018) (HS)
De Bell et al. (2020) (G, HS)
Fisher et al. (2021) (EP, BC)
Harvey et al. (2020) (EP, BC)
Giusti and Samuelsson (2020)
(M, ES)
Kortmann et al. (2021) (E, BC)
Nghiem et al. (2021) (EP, BC)
Young et al. (2020) (E, EP)
Southon et al. (2018) (BC, H)
Hussain et al. (2019) (BC, PH)
Raymond et al. (2019) (EE, EAS)
Methorst et al. (2021) (E, EE)
Skevington et al. (2019) (EP, BC)
Lindemann-Matthies and Matthies (2018) (E, BC)
Cameron et al. (2020) (EP, LA, M)
Schebella et al. (2019) (EP, PH, M)
Schebella et al. (2020) (EP, M, PH)
Marselle et al. (2020) (EP, E, M)
Mavoa et al. (2019) (E, G, M)
Methorst et al. (2021) (EP, EE, EAS)
Wyles et al. (2019) (EP, EE, MB)
Mears et al. (2019)
(LA, M, E, PH)
Wood et al. (2018)
(EP, E, BC, PH)
Total number of studies 5 13 7 2
The disciplines contributing to each study are abbreviated in brackets beside each citation, with the key to disciplines below the table.
Key: EP, environmental psychology/psychology; EE, environmental economics; BC, biological and conservation sciences; M, mapping/mathematics and statistics; E,
ecology; MB, marine biodiversity; PH, public health; HS, health sciences; EAS, environmental and agricultural sciences/engineering; G, geography; LA, landscape
architecture; H, horticulture.
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of landscape architecture, horticulture, health sciences and
environmental economics. This may have implications for
subsequent study designs and the application of findings.
Guiding Theory
Attention Restoration Theory (ART) and Stress Recovery Theory
(SRT) are the most prominent guiding theories for studies from
both time periods (Figure 3). These theories are similarly based
on the notion that natural elements within landscapes provide the
opportunity for mental relief from the many things that demand
attention in everyday life and enable recovery from stress or
the use of active attention through passive engagement with the
environment (Kaplan and Kaplan, 1989).
The use of these theories reflects the short-term nature of
most of the studies, which examine what may be referred to as
“momentary wellbeing” (Fisher et al., 2021). Another theory that
has been used in both early and recent works is the Biophilia
Hypothesis (Figure 3), which suggests that humans have an
innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms
of life (Kellert, 1995). In recent work, new theories have been used
such as Cultural Ecosystem Services, which describes the non-
material benefits offered by natural environments, and which has
importance for environmental economics and decision making
(Milcu et al., 2013).
The most surprising finding here is that the majority
of studies in both earlier and recent years do not refer
to a guiding theory at all (Figure 3). This is reflected in
the type of correlational study design used in most of the
research as opposed to experimental, mechanistic studies.
This may also have flow on effects in subsequent aspects
of study designs and interpretation of findings. There is no
notable correlation between author disciplines and the use of
guiding theoretical frameworks. There are many studies with
the perspective of environmental psychology without being
guided by ART or other theory (e.g., Wheeler et al., 2015;
Schebella et al., 2019), and conversely, there are numerous
studies without this psychological perspective but which utilize
a guiding psychological theory (e.g., Hoyle et al., 2017;
Meyer-Grandbastien et al., 2020).
Biodiversity and Mental Health and
Psychological Wellbeing Variables
There is a significant variation in the biodiversity and health
and wellbeing variables used across the 52 studies reviewed
(Figures 4,5). So far, there are no two studies which used the
same study design or variables. Furthermore, it is important
to note that many studies utilize multiple variables of both
biodiversity and mental health.
The relative frequency with which particular metrics of
biodiversity have been utilized are summarized in Figure 4.
Comparing the two sets of studies [Early (E) and Recent (R)],
it can be seen that species richness, measuring biodiversity at a
species communities’ level, is the most prominent metric used to
evaluate biodiversity in the studies in both time periods, however,
the variables and instruments used across studies are highly
heterogeneous. The ecosystem/habitat level of biodiversity is also
studied frequently across both time periods. In recent works,
there is a greater representation of perceived species richness
FIGURE 3 | Summary of the guiding theories used in studies from 2006–2017, compared to those between 2018–2021. The number of studies may exceed the
total number of studies reviewed (52) as some studies utilized more than one guiding theory.
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FIGURE 4 | Visual summary of results for biodiversity variables used in early
studies (E) compared to recent studies (R). The three biodiversity levels
represented are ecosystem/habitat, species communities (which includes
species richness, perceived species richness, abundance of specific
taxonomic group) and single species. The size of each variable represents the
relative frequency with which it occurred in the body of literature, noting that
some studies included more than one biodiversity variable (produced with
worditout.com). A numerical representation of this data may be found in
Supplementary Appendix 1.
as a biodiversity variable. As reflected in the results for guiding
theory (Figure 3), attention restoration continues to be the most
prominent variable by which mental health is measured. This
is followed by the use of the broader “mental health” variable,
for both time periods. As with the biodiversity variables, many
studies measured multiple different outcomes of mental health
and/or wellbeing.
There is such a diversity of both mental health and biodiversity
indicators utilized across studies that it remains difficult to
compare or draw any correlation between discipline and use
of variables. In recent work we do see a move to diversify the
range of biodiversity variables tested, moving beyond just simply
vegetation indices to include other taxa such as birds and insects
(Wood et al., 2018;Cameron et al., 2020). We also see a large
number of studies that include perceived biodiversity metrics,
which have been shown to be of great importance to obtaining
mental health and wellbeing benefits from nature (White et al.,
2017;Nghiem et al., 2021).
Throughout the two time periods, correlational study designs
continue to pervade, as reflected by the frequent use of
ecosystem/habitat level of biodiversity, and broader “mental
health” as a variable (Figures 4,5). There have yet only
been five experimental studies conducted within the recent
body of literature, and only one experimental study conducted
in early literature. Within recent literature, newly emerging
experimental study designs include those with the planting of
specific experimental plots (Lindemann-Matthies and Matthies,
2018;Southon et al., 2018), which have been conducted
from horticultural and/or landscape architectural perspective.
Other emerging methodologies include measuring physiological
stress responses in a quasi-experimental environment in situ
(Lindemann-Matthies and Matthies, 2018;Hussain et al., 2019)
or in response to the presentation of photographs or short videos
(Schebella et al., 2020).
FIGURE 5 | Visual summary of results for the mental health variables used in
early studies (E) compared to recent studies (R). The size of each variable
represents the relative frequency with which it occurred in the body of
literature, noting that some studies included more than one mental health
and/or wellbeing variable (produced with worditout.com). a numerical
representation of this data may be found in Supplementary Appendix 1.
DISCUSSION
The diversity of methodologies, guiding frameworks and
findings we found in our review are reflective of how
interdisciplinary this topic area is and that researchers are only
just beginning to develop ways to explore and understand the
relationships between biodiversity and human mental health
and psychological wellbeing. It is clear from the literature
that exploring biodiversity-mental health relationships remains
complex due to an underdeveloped yet growing understanding
of the underlying mechanisms, and the large number of potential
variables to be tested. More recent studies in particular (e.g.,
Southon et al., 2018;Schebella et al., 2020;Nghiem et al.,
2021) highlight the importance of perceived biodiversity for
psychological benefits and combining these with technology that
measures physiological responses to biodiversity could continue
to contribute to an understanding of the mechanisms underlying
these relationships.
It is not surprising given the two disciplinary fields this
research combines, that contribution from two disciplinary
perspectives continues to be most prevalent in recent works.
However, there are a number of unique contributions that can
be made from additional disciplines outside of environmental
psychology and ecology/biology. Increased representation
of disciplines such as urban ecology, horticulture and
landscape architecture in more recent studies (Table 1)
indicates growing interest in using findings from this
research to guide the design of urban landscapes, for
which biodiversity conservation/restoration is becoming an
increasingly prevalent objective.
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The type of passive engagement with nature as described
by the Attention Restoration Theory and the Stress Recovery
Theory has been demonstrated by research to be the main way
that we obtain psychological benefits from natural environments
(Berto, 2014), so it is not surprising that these theories continue
to feature heavily within the literature. However, given the
psychological underpinnings of this research, a surprisingly
low proportion of studies from both time blocks utilize
guiding theoretical frameworks. This may have thus flow on
effects within subsequent study designs, contributing to the
inconsistency in methodologies and results. The prominent
use of Attention Restoration Theory as a guiding framework
reflects the short-term nature of many of these studies and the
uncertainty still surrounding the mechanisms of biodiversity-
mental health relationships.
A large proportion of studies explore relationships at the
ecosystem/habitat level, as metrics such as habitat structural
heterogeneity have been suggested to be the lens through which
we perceive biodiversity within a landscape (Fuller et al., 2007;
Beninde et al., 2015;Mears et al., 2019). The metrics of mental
health, as compared to metrics of “momentary wellbeing” such as
attention restoration or affect (Fisher et al., 2021) that consider
the mechanisms by which health benefits arise, tend to show
weak associations (Mears et al., 2019). Using these broader scale
variables of health may therefore be contributing to inconsistent
results. Additionally, there are a range of potential moderators
and mediators that may be contributing to variations in the
relationships between biodiversity and mental health, such as
biodiversity knowledge and connection to nature (Van den Berg
et al., 2015;Coldwell and Evans, 2018). Only two studies have
investigated the role of a specific species on mental health
and wellbeing and it will be important for future research to
consider this scale to understand the role of specific species in
contributing to mental wellbeing, and to understand whether
particular species or combinations of species are more important
than others, which could also be important in the context of
particular endangered species or communities (Aerts et al., 2018;
Mavoa et al., 2019).
The move toward the use of perceived biodiversity in
recent literature is important as people’s perception of a
given environment, which can differ greatly from the actual
environment, can have a strong impact on the wellbeing benefits
derived (Coldwell and Evans, 2018;Nghiem et al., 2021).
Perceived metrics such as species richness may have even greater
influence than objectively measured biodiversity. Reining et al.
(2020) highlight the fact that these studies have been conducted
in distinctly different environments such as meadows and coastal
areas, making it even more difficult to replicate or apply findings.
Few studies focus on the diverse environments that might exist
within one protected area, for example. Studying particular
protected areas or particular species or communities therein
may be of great importance in the context of particular locally
endangered species or communities.
Findings from the present study are consistent with the
mixed and inconclusive evidence reported in previous reviews
(Aerts et al., 2018;Marselle et al., 2019), which describe the
limited and conflicting evidence base for relationships between
biodiversity and mental health. Inconsistencies in methods and
results also highlights difficulties in studying these relationships
within existing paradigmatic frameworks (Aerts et al., 2018;
Giusti and Samuelsson, 2020). One way of addressing this
in future could be to consider how these findings fit within
alternative frameworks such as sustainable social-ecological
systems, and the way interactions between mental health and
biodiversity may help to understand and promote the restoration
of the relationships between human and ecological functioning
(Giusti and Samuelsson, 2020).
Recommendations for Future Research
It is clear that researchers are only just beginning to understand
the nuances of relationships between biodiversity and mental
health and psychological wellbeing, and the variation in
methodologies and results reflects the growing interest in this
area, and the many perspectives from which people are trying
to understand and test these relationships. Although there is yet
little consistency in terms of disciplinarity and methodologies,
there are some key elements of study designs that can be
informed by the unique perspective of particular disciplines. For
example, the use of physiological measurements as informed by
health sciences indicates a growing interest in understanding
the underlying mechanisms at play, and the use of experimental
planting plots from the perspective of landscape architecture
or horticulture indicates an interest in using these findings
to apply to landscape design. The importance of contribution
from perspectives of psychology and ecology is clear for
this type of research, however, the contribution of additional
disciplines would be of great benefit for both understanding the
underlying mechanisms of these relationships and applying them
to decision-making or design.
To assist with bringing in a wider range of perspectives, we
have created a visualization of how different disciplines might
contribute to the body of research at various scales (Figure 6).
At the top of this inverted triangle there are correlational studies,
which so far have tended to work at large geographic scales,
obtaining for example, census data for mental health variables
and satellite derived biodiversity data. These operate at the
larger ecosystem/habitat scales of biodiversity. As we move to
the bottom of the triangle, there are the more experimental,
mechanistic studies, which study biodiversity at the community
or single species level, and which measure mental health at
physiological or attention restoration level. These tend to be
on much smaller geographic scales, in for example a specific
greenspace or planting plot, with an accordingly small sample
size. These are the findings that would be more specific than
those at the top of the triangle, as indicated by the arrows on the
right-hand side.
Beside the triangle on the left-hand side, some of the key
research disciplines which may make the greatest impact at
various scales are displayed. Environmental psychology and
ecology are displayed across the whole length of the triangle
as these will be of greatest importance at every level of
this research. Collaboration between psychology and ecology
could greatly benefit from additional perspectives, for different
outcomes and applications of findings and to develop a more
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Hedin et al. Biodiversity, Mental Health and Wellbeing
FIGURE 6 | Visual conceptualization of recommendations for future research exploring relationships between biodiversity and mental health and wellbeing.
mechanistic understanding of these relationships. In addition
to the importance of foundations in psychology and ecology,
perspectives such as public health and environmental economics
could assist in framing the research from the perspective of
decision making. For example, it could be important from the
perspective of environmental economics and decision making to
consider the concept of Cultural Ecosystem Services (including
psychological restoration, improved physiological health, better
social relations and spiritual development) (Kosanic and Petzold,
2020). A challenge exists in ascertaining whether cultural
ecosystem benefits are sensitive to variations in biodiversity
(King et al., 2017). Cultural Ecosystem Services could be
an important concept for guiding decision making based on
findings from research in this topic and warrants further
investigation, as so far only one study has framed their
research and findings in the context of this concept. Toward
the mechanistic end of the research, perspectives of landscape
architecture, horticulture, medical and health sciences may
contribute important elements for experimental study designs,
such as the use of physiological measurements in response
to biodiversity, or the establishment of specific planting plots
in which the ecology is well-documented. From a medical
perspective for example, demonstrating stronger mechanistic
links between biodiversity and mental health and wellbeing
variables could provide important evidence to support healthcare
approaches that formalize the role of nature, through concepts
such as “green prescription” (Ulmer et al., 2016).
It is important to note that the categories shown in
Figure 6 are not clear-cut, and that important interactions
would occur between various aspects of studies at different
scales. However, overall, it will be more consistent work in
these lower, more mechanistic areas of the inverted triangle,
that will help to understand the underlying mechanisms and
relationships on local scales that can account for variables such as
sociodemographic factors and the importance of place-based data
(Harvey et al., 2020). Mixed methods approaches that combine
perspectives from multiple disciplines, with clear theoretical
foundations and use of robust experimental study designs would
enable a clearer progression of findings in this field. It is clear
that a longer period of time, including the use of longitudinal
research may be needed for these relationships to be understood,
particularly in how biodiverse environments might contribute
to mental health over time, for example beginning in childhood
(Harvey et al., 2020). There is also a need to understand
the full range of potential mediators and moderators of these
relationships, such as biodiversity knowledge, connectedness to
nature and socioeconomic factors, as these have been shown
to influence the way benefits are obtained from biodiverse
environments (Schebella et al., 2020). For example, psychological
benefits have been reported as being greatest for those with
lower socio-economic status, lower education level or low
biodiversity knowledge in multiple studies (Hoyle et al., 2017;
Coldwell and Evans, 2018;Marselle et al., 2020). Further
investigation of the relative benefits of biodiversity for a greater
diversity of populations and socioeconomic factors could be
of great importance in the context of environmental equity.
Similarly, it would be valuable to see a greater representation
of non-western populations such as those represented in Fisher
et al. (2021),Chiang et al. (2017),Chang et al. (2016), and
Nghiem et al. (2021). We acknowledge, however, that the
inclusion of English language only studies in our review may
have precluded representation of such populations within the
body of literature.
In order to progress toward transdisciplinary research within
this field, there are several theoretical frameworks that future
researchers might consider as a means of framing studies in a
more holistic manner. The Actor Network Theory for example,
provides a means by which researchers may frame relationships
between biodiversity and health in the context of social-
ecological system resilience (Horgan and Dimitrijevi´
c, 2018),
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Hedin et al. Biodiversity, Mental Health and Wellbeing
which may be of great importance for applying findings to urban
planning. Given the importance of perceived biodiversity as a
metric conferring health and wellbeing benefits, we believe that
tools such as the “Place Standard,” which invite community
participation in assessing greenspace qualities, may provide
important information for decision-makers in understanding
how communities relate to biodiversity through concepts such
as place attachment and sense of place (Hasler, 2018;Colley
and Craig, 2019). These concepts, which describe cognitive-
emotional connections between people and their valued places
have been demonstrated to mediate the wellbeing benefits
obtained from greenspace (Scannell and Gifford, 2017;Basu
et al., 2020;Han et al., 2021) and could therefore be important
for future research to consider. However, by drawing upon a
common set of metrics used to represent biodiversity, it will
become easier to identify consistent pathways through which
biodiversity contributes to human mental health, regardless of
the frameworks being used. The metrics identified by this study
make an excellent starting point for future studies looking to
quantify biodiversity, particularly when they are combined with
the conceptual framework we present in Figure 6.
One limitation of our study is the novel approach used to
determine authorship, which may not have captured the true
research specialization or interests of each author. However,
our method does provide a useful indication of the disciplinary
framing of the paper, and this brings a unique perspective
that hasn’t previously been examined. The 3 years gap between
the two time periods studied is also a potential limitation, as
a longer period of time may be required in order to draw
meaningful conclusions as to whether research in this field
is progressing toward a cohesive body of evidence. This may
have also largely contributed to the lack of differences found
between time periods for the variables examined. Furthermore,
we acknowledge that the wide variation in terminology used
by different disciplines contributing to this body of research
may have precluded several studies from being included in
our analysis. For example, a mechanistic study of frontal alpha
asymmetry as a direct neurological response to urban green
spaces was not included in our study as they used a contemplative
landscape model to represent variation between greenspaces,
rather than a direct measure of real or perceived biodiversity
(e.g., Olszewska-Guizzo et al., 2020). Bringing together these
diverse fields and framings is one of the key challenges that
need to be addressed. The simplest solution is to ensure
that biodiversity is explicitly included in the title, abstract
or keywords of studies that include it as a consideration;
and that a simplified search term such as “human health
or “wellbeing” is included in the keywords for studies with
more specific measures, as demonstrated by Olszewska-Guizzo
et al. (2020). This will be particularly important for studies
that employ additional frameworks and tools such as the Actor
Network Theory or Place Standard mentioned above, as these
approaches do not always explicitly consider biodiversity, and
therefore could potentially be overlooked in the absence of an
additional signal.
The range of contributing disciplines and use of variables to
the body of research reviewed in this study reflects a growing
interest in this topic, and the complexity of relationships between
biodiversity and mental health and wellbeing. The variation
in uses of guiding theory and variables also reflects the many
different ways by which researchers are trying to understand and
test these relationships. The use of mixed methods approaches
within recent works demonstrates a growing interest in
understanding the underlying mechanisms (physiology) and how
these relationships can inform greenspace design (experimental
planting plots). This study has shown that while there is still
great inconsistency and lack of coherence in study designs
even in recent works, it is clear that different disciplines have
unique perspectives to offer, and that continued interdisciplinary
collaboration within mechanistic studies could contribute to a
cohesive body of evidence, to inform strategies or policies that
aim for win-win scenarios for both biodiversity conservation and
mental health and wellbeing.
AUTHOR CONTRIBUTIONS
MH, AH, LM, and KL: conceptualization, development of
methodology, and reviewing and editing draft manuscript. MH:
investigation, compiling and curating data, analysis, and writing
initial draft. All authors have read and agreed to the published
version of the manuscript.
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
The contents of this manuscript were originally produced as a
thesis in partial completion of the Master of Urban Horticulture
at the University of Melbourne (Hedin, 2021). We would like
to acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the land and
waterways on which this research took place, the Wurundjeri
Woi-Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation. We would like to pay
respects to their Elders, past, present and emerging.
SUPPLEMENTARY MATERIAL
The Supplementary Material for this article can be found
online at: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fevo.2022.
865727/full#supplementary-material
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