This week sees the annual crossover of Mental Health Awareness Week and Green Health Week. Ruairi O’Brien, Health Improvement Officer in the Public Mental Health Team, presents a view on the links between the two.

With a strong background in human geography, I know that place, nature, and our interaction with it, are fundamental to how we are as human beings.  They’re fundamental to our health too. This week’s spotlight on green and mental health provides an ideal opportunity to reinforce the importance of how geography can influence our health.

Why Green Health Matters

The evidence on green health is clear. Green health:  

  • supports our mental health by reconnecting us with nature,
  • can increase physical activity within communities,
  • can encourage community connectedness,
  • provides an oasis from the built environment, reducing noise levels and human made air pollutants.

In fact, increasing green space across residential environments has been shown to have a reduction in all-cause mortality.

Green health is also recognised as a fundamental right in the optimal development of our children, as set out in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).

The evidence is also clear that physical activity improves mental health and wellbeing with numerous studies showing positive effects on self-esteem, cognitive function, mood, depression, and quality of life. Exercise enhances mood and self-esteem while decreasing stress which is a known factor in aggravating both mental and physical health conditions.

Likewise, positive mental health is shown to be a protective factor for physical health conditions like heart disease and strokes. Being in positive mental health also increases our likelihood of being physically active and evidence has shown those adopting a more physically active lifestyle are less likely to need prescriptions to alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Therefore, physical activity promotes and protects mental health, and positive mental health helps promote and protect our physical health. Green space promotes and protects both.  

Health is disproportionately impacted by geography

If you live in neighbourhoods with higher deprivation, health outcomes are usually universally poorer.

The Scottish Health Survey demonstrates there is a consistent difference in mental health between areas of high and low deprivation.

The Open Space Strategy and Play Sufficiency Assessments Regulations consultation, carried by the Scottish Government in 2021, showed that areas with higher levels of deprivation are less likely to be near greenspace and where green space is present, it is more likely to be of poor quality.

It won’t be a surprise that similar inequalities exist around physical activity. In Scotland we know that physical activity decreases with rising deprivation levels.

The system for supporting good health outcomes mentioned earlier, becomes less straightforward for those living in a more deprived neighbourhood.

So how do we ensure the relationship between physical and mental health is seeded and nurtured in communities across Scotland?

Scotland has a National Planning Framework and the Community Empowerment Act that recognises the building blocks of health and that communities should influence the places they stay, work and play. One of the ways Public Health Scotland is supporting the implementation of these policies is the through the Place Standard. Adopting a Place Standard approach is about considering all the physical and social elements of a place collectively. It is about supporting and enhancing the potential of people, physical and natural assets in a place.  

Through its use, opportunities can be created to increase high-quality green space, support physical activity, support the development of our children, support the climate, support social connectedness, and support our mental health. It can help embed systems which support many important health outcomes in the communities where the need is greatest.

Coming together to help communities thrive

If we shape our geography in the right way and focus it in the right areas, we can help our communities thrive mentally and physically.  

If we circle back to the start, we can surmise that the increase of green space can facilitate a positive and powerful effect on both our physical health and our mental health.  Increases to one, or the other, has reinforcing benefits to overall health.

Fundamentally we need all parts of the system, from policy through to practice, to come together and see where our common goals are inter-related and co-dependent. By doing so real change will be achievable, benefits to our communities can be long lasting and the foundations can be laid that support generations to come.

This is why our work in Public Health Scotland has such a strong focus on addressing what determines our mental health and how society can be optimised to protect and promote it. By examining these determinants, we can develop shared understanding that supports goals and outcomes to make Scotland a thriving nation for growing, living, and working in.

Ruairi O’Brien, Health Improvement Officer, Public Mental Health, Public Health Scotland

Special thanks and appreciation go to Alaba Rozalen Gonzalez, Flora Jackson, and Michelle McCormack in the development of this blog and their knowledge, insight and input for green health, physical activity, and the place standard respectively.

Get in Touch

If you would like to hear more about the wider determinants of mental health and help us understand the systems that we need to shape and improve, please contact


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Last updated: 15 May 2024