Momentary Smartphone-Based Ecological Assessment Reveals the Mental Health Benefits of Birdlife

0

The main objective of the present study was to investigate the mental health benefits of encountering birds as part of everyday life. This was done using smartphone EMA, which allowed us to sample people’s experiences in real time and in real-life settings.

Consistent with our first hypothesis, we found that participants’ mental well-being was significantly better when they saw or heard birds than when they did not see or hear birds. The effect was robust and observed at all three completion rate thresholds as well as after adjusting for potential sociodemographic confounders including age, gender, ethnicity, education, and occupation. Interestingly, we found that the positive effect of seeing or hearing birds on mental well-being was more pronounced when individuals were outdoors (see Supplementary Table S8). People are more likely to see or hear birds in the context of green spaces, raising the possibility that the association between birdlife and mental well-being may in fact reflect an overall effect of nature. on mental well-being. To minimize this possibility, we modeled seeing trees, plants, and seeing or hearing water as additional confounding variables. Critically, the results were still significant, providing support for a specific benefit of avifauna on mental well-being, beyond the well-established effect of green spaces.

Consistent with our second hypothesis, we found that the beneficial effect on mental well-being is still significant after the bird encounter. This is consistent with our previous research on the benefits of greenten and blue18 spaces that have demonstrated lasting mental health benefits. Not surprisingly, the beneficial effect of seeing or hearing birds on mental well-being wears off over time. In fact, it is reduced during the first evaluation following the meeting and is no longer significant during the second evaluation following the meeting. Using an observational design meant that we were unable to establish causality in our results. Nevertheless, we found that the association between seeing or hearing birds and mental well-being was still evident in later assessment, whereas mental well-being at any given time did not increase the odds of seeing or hearing birds. to hear birds at later times (see Supplementary Tables S6, S7). This pattern of results could be an indication of a possible causal effect of avifauna on mental well-being.

Consistent with our third hypothesis, the beneficial impact of daily bird experience on mental well-being was evident in both people with depression and people without mental health conditions. Again, this result was observed at all three completion rate thresholds as well as after adjusting for potential socio-demographic confounders including age, gender, ethnicity, education, occupation , seeing trees, plants and seeing or hearing water at the time of the assessment. Depression is the leading cause of disability and work stoppage worldwide19affecting approximately 350 million people20. While antidepressants can lead to a significant reduction in symptoms12, there is an urgent need for non-pharmacological interventions to support the mental health of people who have developed this condition. Current evidence for the mental health benefits of green spaces in people with depression is mixed, with some studies reporting significant effects21,22,23 and others suggesting reduced benefits compared to healthy individuals24.25. Our investigation extends this existing literature by demonstrating that the daily experience of avifauna has beneficial effects not only in healthy individuals but also in people with a diagnosis of depression.

The potential policy implications of this study are twofold. First, the results have implications for environmental and wildlife protection policy. The last few decades have seen a gradual but steady decline in biodiversity. A recent European report found there are 247 million fewer house sparrows and one in six bird species have gone extinct since the 1980s26. The reasons for this decline are complex. In rural areas, agricultural intensification and animal husbandry with chemical products lead to the loss of habitats and the disappearance of insects that feed birds; while in urban areas the bird population is declining due to a combination of trends including food shortages, habitat loss, increases in diseases such as avian malaria and rising levels of air pollution. Our survey supports the establishment of environmental and wildlife protection policies that encourage biodiverse habitats in urban, suburban and rural areas (e.g., permaculture agriculture, wilderness initiatives, improved hedgerows and grasslands, urban forestry). Second, the findings have implications for mental health policy. In recent years, the social prescription of nature-based activities, also known as “green prescribing,” has become increasingly popular to support people with mental illness, including depression.27.28. Our survey supports the idea that visits to habitats with high bird density, such as parks and canals, can be encouraged as part of green prescribing efforts.

Strengths

Previous studies have examined the potential mental health benefits of avifauna using surveys or questionnaires asking participants to recall past experiences, or an artificial experimental setting involving the presentation of images. or bird-related sounds to people sitting in front of a computer screen. In the present study, the use of EMAs allowed us to capture dynamic changes in participants’ location and mental well-being in real time and in real-life contexts. In particular, we used smartphone-based EMAs, which provide more accurate and comprehensive measurements compared to the traditional method of paper diaries and stand-alone electronic devices.29.

Although using an observational design means that we cannot be certain that the observed increases in mental well-being are due solely to seeing or hearing birds, our analyzes have been adjusted for known socio-demographic confounders (age, sex, ethnicity, education and occupation) as well as exposure to trees, plants and water at the time of assessment. Additionally, the fact that the observed increases in mental well-being are still evident after the bird encounter provides indirect support for a potential causal link.

Limits

The sample for this study was self-selected, recruited through a limited range of social media and websites. Additionally, participants were aware that the study aimed to investigate the impact of the social and built environment on mental well-being, which may have made them more aware of how they were feeling and biased their answers. Although the 42 month recruitment timeframe allowed us to recruit a large sample, this occurred before and during the Covid-19 pandemic, which may have altered people’s stress levels and their reaction to the avifauna. Future studies should consider the potential effects of the pandemic. In addition, our sample still consisted mainly of university-educated white people based in the UK who were working or studying. Caution should therefore be exercised when applying the results to the general population. In addition, participants were asked to self-report if they had ever been diagnosed with a mental health problem and to indicate their diagnosis. Additionally, although participants were allowed to select multiple diagnoses, the potential effects of comorbid diagnoses were not considered in the statistical analysis. Future studies would benefit from using validated clinical instruments to assess current symptoms and diagnosis, and exploring the possible effects of comorbidity on outcomes. Finally, since we asked participants if they could see or hear birds, we were unable to disentangle the potential mental health benefits of “seeing” and “hearing” birds. However, during our encounters with birds, we do not perceive the sights and sounds of birds in a vacuum but as part of our multi-sensory experience. Therefore, it can be reductive to focus on visual and auditory aspects when evaluating the mental health benefits of avifauna in real-time and real-world contexts. Consistent with this idea, recent research suggests that nature’s restorative potential is greater when considering visual and auditory aspects together than when focusing on either modality separately.30.

Share.

Comments are closed.