The likelihood of being depressed is significantly reduced for over-65s living in areas with more green spaces and vegetation, research published in the British Journal of Psychiatry has found.

It analysed data of 249,405 over-65s – of whom 9.25% were living with a depression diagnosis - living in Miami Dade County who were enrolled in Medicare, a United States health insurance programme.

It is the first study to analyse the dataset by controlling for demographics – including income - and other illnesses, as well as comparing the impact of high and moderate levels of greenness to low levels of greenness on depression.

The authors, from the University of Miami, used satellite imagery to analyse the levels of greenness at the local level across Miami Dade County.

They found that older adults living in the greenest areas were 16% less likely to be depressed than those in the least green areas, while those living in areas which were moderately green were 8% less likely to be depressed.

The findings suggest that social prescribing – an intervention which can include improving access to green spaces and walking groups - may help prevent and treat depression. 

NHS Green Walking Project

The Green Walking Project is a service delivered across several NHS Trusts. It promotes access to green spaces for those cared for in the inpatient psychiatric setting and has improved the mental health of those taking part and strengthened interpersonal interactions.

This is just one of the studies being discussed at a conference on social prescribing hosted by the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

This conference will look at how to deliver an improved social prescribing service for people with mental illness. However, it is important that it should be viewed as an accompaniment to and not a replacement for medical interventions, as such activities are unlikely on their own to treat existing mental health problems unless they are mild.

Dr Scott Brown, lead author of the paper, said: “The overarching goal of this study was to provide further evidence that greenness and possibly greening interventions may be one strategy to reduce the burden of depression and reduce health care costs.”

Despite the growing evidence base that social prescribing can improve mental health, a recent College survey found that 79% of psychiatrists in England do not have access to formal social prescribing services in their area.

The survey also found that 69% of psychiatrists in England with access to formal social prescribing found services to be either very helpful or helpful.

Social prescribing initiatives to improve mental health

Professor Wendy Burn, President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “This paper shows that accessing green spaces could help reduce depression in older adults. The College recognises the benefits of increasing the evidence base on social prescribing and supports further research in this area.

“I have been very impressed with social prescribing initiatives and am keen to develop these to improve mental health."

To improve access to services the College is holding a social prescribing conference today in partnership with NHS England. It aims to develop services across the country by building a network of service leads within primary and secondary mental health services.

Greenness has been found to reduce depressive symptoms as it has been associated with lower levels of mental fatigue, increased social interaction and higher levels of physical activity.