The Effects of the Natural Environment on the Development of Schizophrenia
“”Place yourself in the middle of the room. Turn on the stereo, the television, and a beeping video game, and then invite into the room several small children with ice cream cones. Crank up the volume on each piece of electrical equipment, then take away the children’s ice cream. Imagine these circumstances existing every day and night of your life”” (Saks, 2007, p. 229).
These are the words that Elyn Saks, the chair Professor of Law, Psychology, Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at University of Southern California, uses to describe the nature of schizophrenia in her memoir, The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness. An extremely smart and logical woman, Elyn Saks demonstrates and beautifully articulates just how debilitating and devastating schizophrenia can be. It is estimated that 1.2% of Americans, around 3.5 million individuals, suffer from schizophrenia, a mental disorder characterized by hallucinations, delusions, and disorganized speech and behavior (About Schizophrenia, n.d.).
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While the exact causes of schizophrenia are not currently known, there is a list of likely causes that is widely referenced and accepted by researchers and physicians. According to the Mayo Clinic website, this list includes, but is not limited to, environmental factors such as increased stress or lack of social relationships, which manifests in feelings of loneliness (Schizophrenia, 2018).
Treatments range from antipsychotic medications to various types of therapy, but there is one serially overlooked combatant of the mental disorder: green spaces. What can the natural environment provide to those with a predisposition to mental illness, particularly schizophrenia? By being in contact and engaging physically with green spaces, there is a possibility that predisposed people can lower their chances of developing schizophrenia, because natural environments have been shown to decrease stress and allow for healthier social interaction.
The natural environment can lower a susceptible person’s chance of developing schizophrenia by lowering their levels of stress, which is one of the perceived causes of the mental illness. Stress can be defined as a person’s physiological and/or behavioral reaction to situations that threaten their overall safety or well-being. One easily-measured physiological response to stress is the level of cortisol that is present in a person’s body at a given time, which can be determined by a blood, urine, or saliva sample.
Cortisol is a steroid hormone that is made and released by the adrenal glands in times of stress, so more cortisol in the body generally means that one is experiencing higher levels of stress (). A study conducted by Bum Jin Park et al. took advantage of this linear relationship and used participant salivary cortisol levels to determine how forest bathing affects levels of stress. In this experiment, 6 participants were exposed to a forest environment while the other 6 were exposed to an urban city environment.
Saliva samples were collected before and after the exposures, and cortisol levels were determined. The data collected showed that those who were subjected to the forest environment experienced a near 15.8% decrease in cortisol levels after only 30 minutes of walking in said environment (Park, Tsunetsugu, Kasetani, Kagawa, & Miyazaki, 2010). In addition, decreases in heart rate and blood pressure further suggested the stress-reducing powers of engaging with natural spaces.
Another study conducted by Roger S. Ulrich et al. demonstrated that simply viewing video footage of the natural environment allowed people to recover from stress faster than those who viewed footage of an urban setting. This particular experiment subjected 120 undergraduate students to a graphic, violent, 10-minute-long video tape to induce stress. After this exposure, the undergraduates were split into six groups, each group watching a different follow-up tape either focused on nature or built areas.
While this study did not test cortisol levels, they used other physiological indicators like muscle tension and heart rate as measures of stress. These tests revealed that the undergraduates that viewed the follow-up videos on nature had lower heart rates and muscle tension, and they recovered faster and more completely to the stress that they were exposed to (Ulrich et al., 1991). Both of these scientific findings suggest that engaging with natural spaces, whether it be physically or virtually, can be an effective method of reducing and recovering from stress.
It is important for those with a predisposition for schizophrenia to avoid and recover from stressful situations because while causation has not been proved, there is a strong correlation between stress and the development of schizophrenic symptoms. In fact, according to a study conducted by Cheryl Corcoran et al., nearly 46% of the participants with schizophrenia experienced a stressful life event around 3 months prior to the surfacing of their mental illness and its symptoms (Corcoran, Mujica-Parodi, Yale, Leitman, & Malaspina, 2002). By taking advantage of the natural environment’s ability to act as a defense against stress, susceptible people cannot only avoid the negative health consequences that are associated with chronic stress, but they can also prevent the development or reemergence of schizophrenia and its debilitating symptoms.
Contact with the natural environment can also lower one’s chances of developing schizophrenia by improving the quantity of a person’s social interactions. It is true that social isolation is physically and psychologically distressing for everyone, however, it can be particularly dangerous for those susceptible to schizophrenia, because isolation is breeding ground for the development of delusions and hallucinations.
In fact, a study conducted on individuals experiencing psychosis, a symptom of schizophrenia that encompasses delusions and hallucinations, found that 69% had not attended a social event in the past year, and 80.1% of the participants indicated that they often felt lonely (Stain et al., 2012). While engaging with green space is not a sure-fire way of making lifelong friends, it is one way to break away from isolation and reduce feelings of loneliness.
In the scientific journal, Vitamin G: Effects of Green Space on Health, Well-Being, and Social Safety, neighborhood green spaces are described as, “”a focal point of tacit coordination for positive informal social interaction”” (Groenewegen, Berg, Vries, & Verheij, 2006). In other words, parks and other natural spaces act as a social melting pot, attracting a variety of people, raising one’s chances of engaging socially with another person. Even brief moments of social interaction can increase feelings of social integration and cohesion. Like levels of stress, while causation has yet to be proven, there is a strong correlation between isolation / a lack of social interaction with the development of schizophrenic symptoms, including delusions and hallucinations.