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CoastLine: UNCW Study raises questions about mental health and disconnect from nature

A game camera deployed in New Hanover County to monitor wildlife activity
Rachael Urbanek / UNCW
A game camera deployed in New Hanover County to monitor wildlife activity

Research clearly shows that spending time in nature is critical for mental, physical, even cognitive health. Can our mental health crises make a stronger case for conservation?

Developers continue to clear-cut natural areas in New Hanover, Pender, and Brunswick Counties. As the regional (human) population of southeastern North Carolina climbs, and developers make room for new buildings, plants, animals, and green spaces for humans are disappearing. Species like coyotes and foxes are better at adjusting to a more urban life with humans. But not every species can adapt.

In New Hanover County, the suicide rate nearly doubled from 2021 to 2022. While we can’t draw a direct correlation between that statistic and the amount of time people are spending in nature, it does raise a legitimate question about the choices we’re making to either support or destroy quality of life.

The research to support the importance of the outdoors, nature, to human health is abundant. In fact, in 2022 the National Institutes of Health published a review of the studies which, unsurprisingly, support the conclusion that exposure to nature is profoundly beneficial to mental health. That same review by the NIH also found that being outside in blue and green spaces supports physical health and cognitive health. The numbers speak loudly: “Mental health outcomes improved across 98% of studies while physical and cognitive health outcomes showed improvement across 83% and 75% of studies respectively.”

If we know that we need nature to live a healthier life, and if a key quality of life measurement is mental, physical, and cognitive health, are we doing enough to preserve natural areas?

grey squirrel in a park
Dominic Nelson / Creative Commons
grey squirrel in a park

In this episode, we take a closer look at the changes we’re seeing in southeastern North Carolina and get some ideas on how we might better manage conservation, not just for the sake of the squirrels and raccoons, but, selfishly, for us.

Rachael Urbanek is a certified wildlife biologist. She is Chair of the Department of Environmental Sciences, where she is also a Professor of wildlife ecology, at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

Links & Resources:

Biophilic Cities

Biophilic City - Raleigh, NC

Rails to Trails Conservancy

Chicago Wilderness Alliance

Lake County Forest Preserves

UNCW Sustainability

Rachel hosts and produces CoastLine, an award-winning hourlong conversation featuring artists, humanitarians, scholars, and innovators in North Carolina. The show airs Wednesdays at noon and Sundays at 2 pm on 91.3 FM WHQR Public Media. It's also available as a podcast; just search CoastLine WHQR. You can reach her at rachellh@whqr.org.