Research on the role of the environment on mental health

10 September 2018

The role the natural environment could play in mental health will be explored as part of an ambitious research investment led by UK Research & Innovation (UKRI).

Couple walking beside a canal

Eight new Mental Health Networks have been announced by UKRI to bring researchers, charities and other organisations together to address important mental health research questions. The new networks bring together researchers from disciplines, including health, medicine, biology, social sciences, humanities and environmental sciences. Many of the networks will also include insight from charity workers, health practitioners and people with lived experience of mental health issues.

The networks, which are supported with £8 million of funding and will be funded for four years (one for three), will progress mental health research into themes such as the profound health inequalities for people with severe mental ill health, social isolation, youth and student mental health, domestic and sexual violence, and the value of community assets.

Two of the eight networks include research into how access to the natural environment can impact mental health. Dr Daisy Fancourt of University College London will spearhead research investigating the role of social, cultural and community assets, such as parks and allotments, in mental health, through a network called MARCH. Professor Simon Gilbody of the University of York will lead a team working to understand and reduce health inequalities by looking at the potential of factors such as access to the benefits of the natural environment for people with mental health problems.

Dr Fancourt said:

We're delighted to receive funding for this research. There is growing evidence about the impact of the environment on mental health and a wealth of environmental assets for people to engage with: more than 27,000 public parks, 1,000 community gardens and 330,000 allotments in the UK. The MARCH Network will focus on the role of these assets in preventing mental ill-health and supporting recovery, as well as exploring how we can remove barriers to access for those with mental illness.

NERC Executive Chair Professor Duncan Wingham said:

There is some evidence to suggest that access to environmental assets, such as parks and allotments, can have a positive impact on mental health, but neither this relationship nor the characteristics of a 'beneficial' environment are yet well understood. Research carried out as part of the UKRI Mental Health Networks will build on our understanding and could contribute important evidence for decision-making, for example, around town planning and managing public green spaces.

Professor Sir Mark Walport, Chief Executive of UK Research & Innovation, said:

Mental ill health is the single largest cause of disability in the UK, and it is estimated that almost a quarter of the country's population are affected by mental health issues each year. The UKRI Mental Health Networks will take a new approach to addressing this challenge by bringing together researchers across a wide range of disciplines with people who have experienced mental health issues, charities, health practitioners and other organisations. Through their work, the new networks will further our understanding about the causes, development and treatments of a wide range of mental health issues.

Summaries of the new Mental Health Networks

- click a network name for more information on that network -

Led by: Dr Daisy Fancourt, UCL

Partners: Queen Mary University of London; Leeds Beckett University; University of Nottingham; University of Exeter; University of London; Beyond Skin; Social Farms & Gardens; Coin Street Community Builders; Community Catalysts Ltd; People Dancing; The Conservation Volunteers; Crafts Council; Greenwich Leisure Ltd; The Heritage Lottery Fund; Historic England; Libraries Unlimited; Live Music Now; Museums Association; NCVO; National Trust; Royal Horticultural Society; Sing Up Foundation; The Reading Agency; The Wildlife Trusts (UK); Think Local Act Personal; Voluntary Arts; Youth Music; Youth Music Theatre UK; Arts Council England; Arts Council of Wales; Creative Scotland; Department for Culture, Media & Sport; Defra; Local Government Association; Culture, Health & Wellbeing Alliance; NESTA; Public Health England; Public Health Wales; Royal Society for Public Health; Social Prescribing Network; What Works Centre for Wellbeing; Action for Children; Action for Happiness; Age UK; MIND; MindOut; Mosaic Youth; Rastafari Movement UK; The Children's Society; The Listening Place; Wonder Foundation; Natural England; The Eden Project; NHS Health Scotland; Mental Health Foundation

Community assets such as the arts, heritage sites, libraries, parks, allotments, volunteer associations and community groups can play a huge role in building resilient individuals and communities. The MARCH Network will bring researchers together with policymakers, commissioners and third-sector organisations to further understand how these social, cultural and community assets can enhance public mental health and wellbeing, prevent mental illness and support those living with mental health conditions.

Led by: Professor Simon Gilbody, University of York

Partners: Hull York Medical School; the York Mental Health & Addictions Research Group (MHARG); Keele University; Mental Health Foundation; The Equality Trust (TET); Centre for Reviews & Dissemination; The Centre for Health Economics; The York Department of Theatre Film & Television; York Environment Department; Digital Creativity Labs; Natural England; Yorkshire Wildlife Trust; Groundwork Trust; Tees Esk & Wear Valleys (TEWV) NHS Trust; N8 Research Partnership; The Cochrane Collaboration; The Campbell Collaboration

Life expectancy is reduced by 20 to 25 years among people with severe mental ill health. This profound health inequality is mostly due to physical health problems such as heart disease, diabetes or cancers associated with lifestyle factors. Rates of smoking and obesity are also much higher in this population, housing is often poor, and people do not benefit from the opportunities offered by exercise and interaction with the natural environment. This network will facilitate interdisciplinary research to understand and close this mortality gap.

Led by: Professor Sonia Johnson, UCL

Partners: University of Birmingham; Northumbria University; Royal College of Music; London School of Economics & Political Science; The Mental Elf; Public Health England; Campaign to End Loneliness; Association for Young People's Health; Wellbeing Enterprises; Bromley by Bow Centre; Zinc

The negative effects of loneliness and social isolation on physical and mental health are increasingly recognised. People with mental health problems are at high risk of loneliness and social isolation. However, we do not have a good understanding of how some people with mental health problems come to be lonely, or how they feel about it. Reducing loneliness and social isolation may be a way to improve lives of people with mental health problems, or even of preventing these problems. Our network brings together experts and people with lived experience to research how to achieve this.

Led by: Professor Louise Howard and Dr Sian Oram, King's College London

Partners: Lancaster University; Newcastle University; University of Warwick; UCL; St George's University of London; University of Oxford; The McPin Foundation; The Lancet Psychiatry; Epidemiology & Psychiatric Sciences

People with mental health problems are more likely to have been victims of domestic or sexual violence, and/or witnessed or experienced violence or abuse as a child. This network will bring together experts on violence, abuse and mental health to investigate the impact of domestic and sexual violence and abuse on mental health and wellbeing, and evaluate potential interventions.

Led by: Professor Lisa McDaid, University of Glasgow

Partners: London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine; Queen's University of Belfast; University of Edinburgh; Cardiff University; The Glasgow School of Art; Mental Health Foundation

In today's society, young people face extraordinary pressures to maintain their mental health. They live in an ever-changing environment, driven by changes in technology, communications and the media. These changes have coincided with an increase in mental health problems amongst young people, especially girls. In this network, academics will work with young people, health practitioners, policymakers and voluntary organisations to find new ways to improve mental health and wellbeing, especially among vulnerable and disadvantaged populations.

Led by: Dr Nicola Byrom, King's College London

Partners: National Centre for Social Research; University of Oxford; Behavioural Insights Team; The McPin Foundation; University of Warwick; Northumbria University, Birkbeck College; The Office of Health Economics; Student Minds; City, University of London; Charlie Waller Memorial Trust; AMOSSHE; Universities UK; NHS England

There is increasing concern for the mental health of university students. The number of students seeking help for mental health problems has increased dramatically, as have the number of students with mental health problems dropping out of university. Some reports suggest that the mental wellbeing of university students may be among the lowest in the population. However, a lack of strong data in this sector presents a barrier to implementing an evidence based strategic response to concerns. The aim of this network is to address this gap, and change the higher education experience to support strong mental wellbeing for all students.

Led by: Professor Gordon Harold, University of Sussex

Partners: University of Nottingham; University of Exeter; King's College London; London School of Economics & Political Science; 5Rights; Association for Child & Adolescent Mental Health; Barnardos; BBC; CCIS; Children & Young People's Mental Health Coalition; Ditch the Label; Facebook UK; Instagram; Internet Matters Ltd; Internet Watch Foundation; Mumsnet; NIHR MindTech HTC; NSPCC; PSHE Association; ParentZone; Place2Be; Save the Children; Snap Group Ltd; The Diana Award; The Walt Disney Company; UK Safer Internet Centre; UKIE; Yoti Ltd

How do we equip parents, teachers, practitioners, policymakers and young people with the information, support and resources they need to promote positive mental health in our modern digital age? This multidisciplinary e-nurture network will explore how the digital environment has changed the ways in which children experience and interact with their family, school and peers, and what effect this has on their mental health.

Led by: Professor Cathy Creswell, University of Reading

Partners: The University of Manchester; London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine; Swansea University; University of Bath; University of Leeds; University of Nottingham; Newcastle University; University of Reading; Mental Health Museum; YoungMinds; The Centre for Mental Health; MQ; The NSPCC; The Mental Elf

Approximately one in ten children and young people have a diagnosable mental health problem. Research has shown that there are clear indicators that predict the emergence of these conditions in children, but despite this only a small minority of children receive effective support. This network will bring together academics from health research, arts, design, humanities and physical science disciplines in order to establish the best ways of helping children, young people and families benefit from mental health research.

Further information

Mary Goodchild
NERC External Communications Manager
01793 411939
07710 147485


1. NERC is the UK's main agency for funding and managing research, training and knowledge exchange in the environmental sciences. Our work covers the full range of atmospheric, Earth, biological, terrestrial and aquatic science, from the deep oceans to the upper atmosphere and from the poles to the equator. We coordinate some of the world's most exciting research projects, tackling major issues such as climate change, environmental influences on human health, the genetic make-up of life on Earth, and much more. NERC is part of UK Research & Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government.

2. UK Research & Innovation is a new body which works in partnership with universities, research organisations, businesses, charities and government to create the best possible environment for research and innovation to flourish. We aim to maximise the contribution of each of our component parts, working individually and collectively. We work with our many partners to benefit everyone through knowledge, talent and ideas.