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The Effects of Nature Deprivation on Youth in Urban Communities
The Effects of Nature Deprivation on Youth in Urban Communities
Since I was 3 years old, I have had a best friend named Finn who lives in one of the most nature deprived areas of downtown Louisville. When the Covid-19 pandemic began, Finn suddenly began disassociating, and fell into a hopeless mental health spiral. As non-traditional-learning and quarantine began to dissolve, Finn came out as transgender, and reported to his family that he had self harmed, and unfortunately attempted suicide. He felt glued to his room and unable to go outside due to where he lived. Finn had always been deeply involved in nature, and lived a healthy natural lifestyle before Covid-19. However, quarantine meant that he had to quit Girl Scouts, which happened to be his only source of safe outdoor access because he lived in an urban area. He could not go outside in his neighborhood without an adult, and constantly had to fear his surroundings. And although he was put on medication and into therapy, he was still struggling to recover and was unable to enjoy being in nature the same way. Last year, Finn as an 11 year-old, was diagnosed with BDD (body dysmorphic disorder), an ED (eating disorder), and NDD (nature deficit disorder). Finn’s doctors believe that his NDD had been caused by the inability for him to go outside safely, and that his NDD could have also partially caused his other disorders.
I have been with Finn for most of his life, and I have witnessed how being unable to access safe nature affected his mental and physical health. Luckily Finn was able to join a group that takes youth from nature-deprived areas to safe natural spaces during the summer, and he has started to recover from NDD. Nature deprivation and NDD affect millions of youth around the United States and can give them severe mental and physical health illnesses.
A large portion of US communities do not have access to nature and outdoor experiences without the added risk of danger, whether it be societal or natural. However, nature is able to provide youth with long-term mental health benefits, inspiring experiences, and even a stronger connection to themselves and the world around them. In a news article written by Chantelle Pattemore, she writes that “a gentle stroll in the forest, helping out with a beach clean-up, or foraging for berries are all activities that stimulate a sense of connection”(Pattemore,1). The youth in these communities that are deprived of nature, are unable to receive these benefits. The majority of these nature deprived areas are primarily non-white, and low income. While some communities have tried to create more safe natural spaces, these low income non-white communities seem to have been missed. According to an article by the Center For American Progress, “For more than a century, the movement to protect parks, public lands, and other natural places in the United States has been dominated by white people and perspectives” (21). School districts across the US should make easy and safe access to nature more available for youth in all US communities to provide youth with the mental health benefits, and adventures that nature provides.
Although this issue of nature deprivation has been noticed, it is still being ignored in a large chunk of communities, preventing them from having access to nature and safe natural environments. It has been proven that severe nature deprivation can result in multiple things: NDD (nature deficit disorder), physical health illnesses, OCD, depression, and other life changing illnesses. Author Sarah Williams writes that “Children and adults are taking ADHD medications at an alarmingly high rate. In addition, behavioral problems in schools have skyrocketed over the past couple of decades”(Williams,1). These are all results of nature deprivation and nature deficit disorder mixed together. Williams claims that “Breaking ourselves and our children away from the addictions of electronic devices can help return us to the natural world that we thrive in best”(Williams,1). As the mental and physical health of current youth have continued to decline, we are starting to realize that this is not just an effect of the Covid-19 pandemic, but also of nature deprivation.
The main areas and communities that experience nature deprivation in the US are low-income, of color, or urban, which causes the youth in these specific communities to have an unfair disadvantage. These youth cannot experience the freedom to access the benefits of nature. In an article written by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, called “Biden-Harris Administration Announces Historic Funding to Expand Access to Trees and Green Spaces in Disadvantaged Urban Communities”, Dr. Homer Wilkes writes, “Research shows that trees and green spaces improve physical and mental health outcomes and create new economic opportunities” (Wilkes,1). Without the safe access to this outdoor availability, the youth of America could suffer from worsening mental and physical health. In the text “Pandemic youth mental health toll unprecedented, data show” written by Lindsey Tanner, it says that “the pandemic took a harsh toll on U.S. teen girls’ mental health, with almost 60% reporting feelings of persistent sadness or hopelessness” (Tanner,1). After the largest surges of the Covid-19 pandemic, many U.S. youth were already suffering from poor health. However while some have been able to use nature to heal from these, others in these communities haven’t.
One of the largest gaps in safe outdoor experiences for youth is in impoverished areas, and more specifically, non-white impoverished neighborhoods. And although the US has been working to resolve this issue of forest-deprivation, it has been limited to the white perspective, and has mostly benefited richer communities. According to an article by the Center for American Progress written by Sahir Doshi, “American society distributes nature’s benefits—and the effects of its destruction and decline—unequally by race, income, and age” (Doshi,1). People of low income are forced to live in poor communities, and therefore experience a lack of nature because of where they live. And even though there has been action in creating more safe outdoor experiences for youth in these communities, they can involve far traveling, high prices, and aren’t available for everyone. In a study by the Center for American Progress about how low-income communities are more likely to experience nature deprivation, they found that while in low income and non-white communities, 76% were nature-deprived, in moderate income communities only 48% were deprived of these outdoor experiences. It becomes evident that this isn’t a coincidence, and that the effects of nature deprivation have a larger impact on people who have less money, live in impoverished areas, and/or are non-white. The people in these communities lack the benefits that come with easy and safe access to nature.
Nature can provide youth with beneficial long term effects, such as better mental health, and the ability to better process issues. After the most extreme parts of the Covid 19 Pandemic, many US youth were impressed with mental and physical health illnesses. Nature, however, provides youth with peace of mind, and the ability to regain mental health stability. According to a Nature News article written by Thomas
Astell-Burt, “Public health studies have shown that people who live or move closer to greener urban areas benefit from sustained improvements in their mental health” (Astell-Burt,1). This is because according to Dr. Liji Thomas, a health today author, being more connected to nature “enhances working memory, restores focused attention, relieves fear and stress, and produces beneficial reductions in heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol levels” (Thomas,1). It becomes evident that not only can being in nature exceedingly improve physical health, but also positively impact mental health among youth. If all youth were able to have access to these health benefits, then there would be more equity for any US youth. Author Morales Garcia, a nature conservationist writes, “Youth who walk alone in nature are less prone to depression and stress” (Garcia,1). Being in nature is an essential part of growing up, not only because of the learning experiences that come as a result, but also for the mental and physical benefits. All communities should put in an equal effort to convert the US into an equal-nature society.
Being outside in natural environments can also provide youth with the learning experiences and adventures that are necessary for youth development. And without access to this natural learning, youth will grow up without the life skills and knowledge that come from playing outside as a child. Youth need to get outside and immerse themselves in nature to gain the life skills and knowledge that will help them in the future. Starla Pointer, an experienced teacher running an outdoor play school writes, “Students see natural spaces that haven’t been shaped by man; they get to feel the fresh air, sunshine and, sometimes, rain” (Pointer,1). Encouraging youth to play outside more, giving them outdoor opportunities, and introducing them to “outdoor programs, gives students a chance to develop social skills through their interactions” (Pointer,1). Youth need these things to understand certain parts of the world that inspire them, and help them do well. These natural experiences that help youth to develop in a positive way, cannot come from communities in the US that do not have easy and safe access to nature.
Attention must be brought to the nature-deprived areas of the US because youth thrive on the chance to be outside in nature. Youth are simply unable to develop in a healthy and happy way without the ability to access safe nature. On a more extreme note, if youth do not have access to safe nature, they can suffer from poor mental health, and even commit suicide or self harm, until school districts work to make safe nature more available for all US communities. These youth often find themselves becoming uninterested in things outside of their homes, such as school, public, and friends. Nature deprivation introduces US youth to unhealthy ways of living, and should be prevented. School districts across the US should make easy and safe access to nature more available for youth in all US communities to provide youth with the mental-health benefits, and adventures that nature provides. Leaving it up to the US school districts would benefit not only the youth in those districts, but also the communities.