Giving people so-called green prescriptions to treat mental health conditions may undermine the benefits by making them feel more anxious, a study has suggested.
Researchers found being out in nature is associated with a number of benefits but only if people chose to visit such places themselves.
The findings come as the Government announced earlier this year a £4 million two-year pilot scheme where patients would be told to spend time outdoors.
The team of researchers, led by the University of Exeter, collected data from more than 18,000 people in 18 different countries.
The findings suggest that while pressure to spend time outdoors can encourage visits to be made, it can also undermine the potential emotional and wellbeing benefits of contact with nature.
They found that people with depression were already visiting nature as frequently as people with no mental health issues, while people with anxiety were visiting significantly more often.
But the benefits of being in nature seem to be undermined when visits were not by choice and the more anxious they felt.
Dr Michelle Tester-Jones, who led the research, said: “These findings are consistent with wider research that suggests that urban natural environments provide spaces for people to relax and recover from stress.
“However, they also demonstrate that healthcare practitioners and loved ones should be sensitive when recommending time in nature for people who have depression and anxiety.
“It could be helpful to encourage them to spend more time in places that people already enjoy visiting, so they feel comfortable and can make the most of the experience.”
The researchers believe their work provides evidence that careful techniques for discussing access to nature needs to be carefully integrated with other support programmes.
Dr Mathew White, who co-ordinated the international research team, added: “We had no idea just how much people with depression and anxiety were already using natural settings to help alleviate symptoms and manage their conditions.
“Our results provide even greater clarity about the value of these places to communities around the world, but also remind us that nature is no silver bullet and needs to be carefully integrated with existing treatment options.”
– The study, Experiences of nature for people with common mental health disorders: Results from an 18 country cross-sectional study, is published in the journal Scientific Reports.