People are less likely to be on antidepressants if they live on a tree-lined street, research has found, as a Forestry Commission report claims the UK saves £185 million each year because of woodlands.
The first analysis of the mental health value of the UK’s forests and woods found that they save the NHS millions in antidepressant and other costs, based on research about the benefits of nature.
Figures show that the UK is behind its tree planting targets, with the head of the Forestry Commission admitting that a government aim to treble rates by the end of this Parliament was “really challenging”.
The report found that urban trees save £16 million a year because of “avoided antidepressant costs”, with research suggesting that living on a tree-lined street is linked to lower antidepressant use.
Over the next century, the mental health benefits of visits to woodlands were estimated at £11 billion, with a further £1 billion for the mental health benefits of street trees.
A study of Londoners carried out by academics at the University of Exeter and the Slovakian University of Trnava found a drop of 1.18 antidepressant prescriptions per thousand people for every extra tree per kilometre of street.
Other studies carried out in Germany and the Netherlands came to similar conclusions, the report said, with physical exercise and living near green spaces such as parks also linked to better mental health.
The Forestry Commission report said the measured change in antidepressant use could also be down to other factors such as population density, less vandalism and less traffic.
Sir William Worsley, the chairman of the Forestry Commission, said that more woodlands needed to be within reach of where people live, with new projects in Cumbria and the Midlands aiming to achieve this.
The Commission has been criticised for planting non-native conifers and for relying too heavily on Scotland to meet tree-planting targets.
Last year it admitted granting a landowner permission to plant trees on a peat bog in Cumbria and said there had been “lessons learned” from the case.
Sir William said: “We need the big forests in Scotland, there’s much more land in Scotland to plant, there is much more availability, but also we need to to get more trees planted in the urban edge areas.”
The Government plans to plant 30,000 hectares of trees in the UK each year from 2025, but current rates are significantly below this level. The 2020-21 figures show that 13,400 hectares of new woodland were planted over the past year.
He insisted the figures were “quite encouraging”, adding that although the targets were “really challenging”, he was “optimistic that we’ve started on the journey and we’re moving in the right direction.”
Stephen Buckley, the head of information for the mental health charity Mind, said: “Spending time outdoors – especially in woodlands or near water – can help with mental health problems such as anxiety and mild to moderate depression.
“This might be due to combining regular physical activity and social contact with being outside in nature.”
He added that spending time outdoors in natural light can be helpful for those who experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a type of depression that affects people during particular seasons or times of year.