The COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly changed people’s ability to recreate in public green spaces, which is likely to exacerbate the psychological impacts of the pandemic. In the current study, we seek to understand whether greenery can support mental health even with insufficient outdoor exposure in times of physical isolation from the outdoor environment.
Between 17 May and 10 June, 2020, we conducted an online survey among 323 students (21.99 ± 3.10 years; 31% male) in health-related programs from two universities in the city of Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Severities of depressive and anxiety symptoms over the past two weeks were measured with the Patient Health Questionnaire 9-item and the Generalized Anxiety Disorder 7-item scale. We employed two self-reported measures of greenery experienced indoors (number of houseplants in the home and proportion of exterior greenery visible from inside the home) and two measures of greenery experienced outdoors (presence/absence of a domestic garden and availability of neighborhood greenery). Restorative quality of the home (the “being away” dimension of the Perceived Restorativeness Scale; PRS) and the neighborhood (the “being away” and “fascination” dimensions of the PRS), engagement with outdoor greenery (frequency of different types of interaction) and perceived social support were treated as mediators. Associations between greenery and mental health were tested using generalized linear regression and logistic regression. Structural equation modelling (SEM) techniques were used to test the theoretically-indicated relations among the variables.
Clinically-meaningful symptoms of moderate depression and anxiety were reported by approximately 33% and 20% of the students, respectively. The relative abundance of greenery visible from the home or in the neighborhood was associated with reduced depressive/anxiety symptoms and lower depression/anxiety rates. Having more houseplants or a garden was also associated with some of these markers of mental health. As hypothesized, the mental health-supportive effects of indoor greenery were largely explained by increased feelings of being away while at home. Neighborhood greenery contributed to neighborhood restorative quality, which in turn facilitated social support and more frequent engagement with greenery, and that led to better mental health.
Students who spent most of their time at home during the COVID-19 epidemic experienced better mental health when exposed to more greenery. Our findings support the idea that exposure to greenery may be a valuable resource during social isolation in the home. However, causal interpretation of these associations is not straightforward.