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6 December 2022

Beyond Mental Health - Creating More Inclusive Definitions in NBS

Beyond Mental Health - Creating More Inclusive Definitions in NBS

Mental health has become a commonplace term and point of discussion in our modern era, fueled by recent experiences of lockdowns, current crises in Ukraine, and global uncertainty around climate change – not to mention the acknowledgement of commonplace stressors that can be present in everyday life. Inquiry into what mental health is, increasing public awareness, and combatting mental health stigma have been on the agenda for corporation and governments alike, branching into hot topics of building resilience, reducing burnout, and how we can create better work/life balance. 

A part of mental health recommendations, especially in the height of covid uncertainty, stemmed from the design of our day and how to break the mold of sameness within the bounds of our homes. Nature based recommendations such as getting early morning light - adding a “commute” via going for a walk or taking your morning joe outside - proliferated and also highlighted disparities in access to nature and its benefits. Those who could get away from cities, whether they had pre-existing access or the financial means, fled to the country in droves. 

While a return to urban living and office settings is making a comeback, recent times have further begged questions around the viability of urbanity and its sustainability for human and planetary health. Nature scenes and soundscapes, green walls, green roofs, local gardens, access to parks and green throughways are being studied and designed to determine the long-term potential and benefits that Nature-based Solutions (NbS) can offer in reducing mental health concerns and fostering greater wellbeing.

But where are the limits of a mental health focus within the context of sustainability, urban development, and human health? It is evident that mental health remains a major driver, however it is only one factor impacting human flourishing among a myriad of target interests in support both human and planet which begs the question, “is the concept of mental health large enough?” Could there be more inclusive, broader scope terms that help us capture efforts to better human psychological wellbeing and promote collective and individual psychological potential?

Defining Mental Health

Standing on the World Health Organization’s (WHO) definition of Mental Health, researchers Bratman et al (2019), concludes that the overarching elements of mental health are, “the absence of mental illness and the presence of psychological well-being.” A lived experience of mental health is centered around the ability to cope with life stressors, make decisions, develop relationships, and shape our reality. 

While the term Mental Health has been promoted more in the research, policy, and collective conscious and the understanding of the need to support Mental Health has grown, a stigma often maintains for individuals and collectives working to address their mental health challenges and seek greater mental wellbeing. Beyond stigma, an additional challenge to achieving Mental Health exists for individuals with a diagnosed disorder, such as those with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, PTSD, ADHD, etc. WHO notes that individuals with mental health conditions often have a lower likelihood of experiencing mental well-being, potentially fostering the perception of an exclusionary divide. 

Meet Brain Health

The challenge of stigma has been long standing in the world of mental health. Mental disorders and individual’s diagnoses with mental health conditions face stigma and are commonly characterized by an inability to engage functionally in society, whereas brain disorders, such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, TBI, etc., carry fear, but can lack the more pervasive social stigmas. In effect, mental health disorders are perceived to extend from the mind (a part of who we are), whereas brain disorders are perceived to extend from the body (a physical challenge or limitation). In a world of mental health, a clinical diagnosis can preclude individuals from feeling as though health is attainable, whereas brain health offers greater inclusivity by allowing individuals to thrive within their own context, irrespective of disorder or diagnosis (Chapman et al., 2021).

US based neuroscience research institute, The Center for BrainHealth, led by Dr. Sandra Chapman has partnered with Trinity College Dublin’s own Dr. Ian Robertson, a neuroscientist studying stress, resilience, and confidence, to lead a pioneering international longitudinal study that supports the idea of a more inclusive term. Reaching beyond mental health, the study and their leaders focus on brain health.

A recent component analysis conducted through CBH’s on-going project highlighted new factors of consideration for long term brain health. The factors highlighted are Emotional Balance, Connectedness, and Clarity. Emotional balance houses elements of mental health, measuring perceptions of Stress and mood regulation, homing in on experiences Anxiety and Depression. Beyond mental health remain the two additional factors of Connectedness and Clarity. While Connectedness in this context is centered on human relationships, further inquiry could illuminate how NbS can highlight human relational connectedness and where connection to the environment may play a role. 

Additionally, the World Health Organization (WHO) has identified the term brain health as distinctive from mental health. Defined as, “the state of brain functioning across cognitive, sensory, social-emotional, behavioural and motor domains, allowing a person to realize their full potential over the life course, irrespective of the presence or absence of disorders” WHO distinguishes and broadens the definition of brain health from mental health by identifying the potential for improved, “mental and physical health” while also creating, “positive social and economic impacts”. The term brain health encapsulates, “numerous interconnected determinants pertaining to physical health, healthy environments, safety and security, learning and social connection as well as access to quality services influence the way our brains develop, adapt and respond to stress and adversity, giving way to strategies for both promotion and prevention across the life course (2022).”

Brain Health and NBS

The growing field of environmental psychology looks at the intersection of mental well-being, cognitive functioning, and our environment – both natural and built. Nature-based Solutions are solutions, both simple and complex, that address societal challenges through the protection, sustainable management, and restoration of both natural and modified ecosystems, benefiting both biodiversity and human well-being (IUCN, 2022).

While addressing mental health and reducing stigma should remain at the fore in Nb planning and research, broadening conversations using more inclusive and broader reaching terminology, such as brain health, could be a path forward in motivating individuals to consider long term benefits for their brain, their mind, and of engaging with nature and sustainable practices. The term mental health has broadly been utilized in reference to the pillar of NbS that address human cognitive well-being, however, NbS research and approach has overreached the boundaries of mental health’s definition – might brain health be the more inclusion and broader reaching term needed to define further indications of success when implementing NbS?

Research has historically highlighted the impacts of nature on attention, identifying that nature exposure can help restore attention capacities, a theory termed Attention Restoration Theory (ART)(Kaplan, 1995). Additionally, broader applications of NbS on mental health and cognitive performance enhancement are currently being investigated by Dr. Annalisa Setti, an Advisory Board member on GGR and Cognitive Scientist at UCC. Dr. Setti’s recent work studies the impact of nature on reduction of performance anxiety and performance capacity in university students during term times (O’Meara et al., 2020)

In truth, NbS and current think tanks or “Living Labs” require huge amounts of thought work. Thought work is critical to reimagining an area and its potential to be redesigned to include NbS, optimize human wellbeing, and reap economic benefits. A future focus on brain health and the utilization of the brain economy is needed to foster inclusive environments. This could allow for individuals to thrive within their circumstance as we come up against challenges of climate change and invest in the broad array of NbS that will allow the future of humanity to flourish alongside our planetary home. 

Kalyn Potter, MSc, BrainHealth Coach – The BrainHealth Project

Yoga session in the forest (Unsplash) by "Go to Annegret Kammer's profile Annegret Kammer", licensed under free stock