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Green spaces, mental health and well-being in the time of COVID-19

Green spaces, mental health and well-being in the time of COVID-19

Nadha Hassen

There is a body of research that indicates the benefits of green spaces on mental health and well-being. As the lockdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic has forced us to stay at home, socially distance from our family and friends, and limit our outdoor interactions, the call to connect with nature and have safe access to green spaces have become all the more critical. Indeed, mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, are increasing worldwide. These could be exacerbated by the current pandemic especially at this time of isolation, affecting the most vulnerable and marginalized people in urban populations who may not have as much equitable access to green spaces. (See CBC news).

In her doctoral study on "Parks Prescriptions and Perceptions: Experiences of Racialized People with Mood Disorders in Green Spaces," Vanier scholar Nadha Hassen explores the experiences of racialized people living with mental illness in urban green spaces in Toronto. Using a visual research method called photovoice, Hassen’s research captures the experiences of people who are racialized and living with mood disorders as they interact with Toronto’s urban green spaces.

To assess the quality of urban green spaces, a process for identifying the range of diverse needs of the community and residents for consideration when designing green spaces is key.

“These rich, layered personal accounts of their lived realities will be analyzed to give us a better understanding of how racialized people with mood disorders perceive, experience and interact with urban green space,” said Hassen. “As the population of Toronto rises rapidly, proper planning of the city’s green infrastructure from a public health lens is vital.” (See Hassen's Green Paths to Mental Health Walk Lab Report earlier in 2016).

In an April 2020 article on “Chronic illness, access and non-productivity during COVID-19”, Hassen personally accounts the physical and mental health struggles she went through following a concussion alongside a heightened possibility of contracting the virus.

“This confluence of events, both personal and global, have created a perfect storm for negatively impacting my mental health. I know that I am not alone in this. There are many others who are also navigating chronic health issues alongside fears of what it would mean to get COVID-19, how to safely access necessary resources like groceries and prescriptions and the serious financial implications of this pandemic,” she expressed.

CBC Photo

Though cooped up in her place for several weeks and access to green space has been limited, she offers insights and thoughts on what has helped her nurture her mental health during this time of COVID pandemic -- radical acceptance, asking for and receiving help graciously, maintaining some daily structure, embracing kindness towards ourselves, recognizing that we do not have to produce, and finding/creating small moments of joy.

Indeed, as she says, “there is wisdom in slowing down, trusting our bodies and minds and first and foremost, taking care of ourselves and each other.”

Nadha Hassen holds a Master of Public Health from the University of Toronto. She was a CIHR Fellow in Public Health Policy and also completed the Community Development Collaborative Program. For the last five years Nadha has worked in research at policy and community levels, including roles at Public Health Ontario, Wellesley Institute, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) and Africa’s Children-Africa’s Future (AC-AF). Having completed an undergraduate degree in Architectural Design and minors in Environment & Science and Biology, she is interested in exploring the connections between the built environment and population health. She employs a health equity lens to identify populations and areas where there is a greater need for research and action.