Biodiversity as an equitable approach to improving mental health and wellbeing

Globally, we are facing multiple environmental and health challenges. The global burden of mental ill-health is increasing, particularly in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). In parallel, loss of habitats, climate change and other threats have mean that millions of species are at risk of extinction, placing us in the midst of an unprecedented biodiversity crisis.

One driver of biodiversity loss and increased mental ill health is rapid, unplanned and uncontrolled urbanisation. Most of the projected growth in the world’s urban population will take place in LMICs where urbanisation places cities under pressure to provide sustainable living conditions. As cities shape the context in which people live, we need to improve our understanding of how mental health and well-being are determined in urban areas.

Although urban living has many benefits, it can also be detrimental to mental health and well-being. In LMICs, risk factors for mental ill-health are high in informal settlements and slums. Health equity is further compromised by the fact that ethnic minorities, migrant populations, and low-income groups have the highest burden of mental ill-health.

Mental health and wellbeing are determined by a complex interplay of social, economic, psychological, physiological, behavioural, genetic, cultural and environmental factors. Interest in the role the natural environment has been growing not least because the evidence indicates that contact with/exposure to greenspaces can promote multiple dimensions of mental health and well-being.

Nevertheless, there are substantial knowledge gaps.  Much of the evidence assessing mental health and well-being benefits of greenspaces has used relatively simple metrics to measure exposure, such as the amount of accessible greenspace. While such studies provide important insights, we lack understanding of the mechanisms that link biodiversity, mental health and well-being. Further, the widely accepted consensus that contact with greenspaces can promote human well-being is largely based on evidence that is not globally representative. There is a strong bias towards temperate, high-income countries, and rapidly urbanising cities in LMICs remain largely unexplored. Studies from high-income countries make universal claims about the links between greenspaces and human well-being, despite disparities in environmental and cultural characteristics, and urban conditions. We cannot therefore assume that evidence from high-income countries is universally relevant.

We also know that biodiversity has a role in human well-being. However, biodiversity is a complex concept and we know little about the positive and negative contributions of specific aspects of biodiversity for human well-being. Indeed, there are many biodiversity attributes that people might be responding to. In addition to objective metrics such as species abundance and richness, people could be more attuned to colours, sounds and smells associated with biodiversity, or be particularly fearful of species associated with attack, injury and transmission of vector-borne disease.

In this PhD, you will have the opportunity to work in Accra, Ghana and in Bern, Switzerland. This will allow you to address a wide range of research questions including:

  1. How do residents of Accra and Bern perceive, and relate to, the biodiversity around them?
  2. Does biodiversity underpin mental health and wellbeing in contrasting cultural and geographic settings?
  3. Are the benefits and harms associated with exposure to and experience of biodiversity distributed equitably across populations and individuals? Do we see similar patterns in low- and high-income settings?
  4. What is the relative importance of biodiversity, nature and greenspaces in determining mental health and wellbeing in complex socio-ecological systems such as cities?
  5. What is the role of policy, practice, management and governance in facilitating or impeding the potential of biodiversity to enhance mental health and wellbeing?

As part of this PhD there is an opportunity to get involved with a recently funded research project “Commonpaths. Commonification: transition pathways for urban sustainability” (, which includes partners in Switzerland and Ghana. As part of Commonpaths, you will interact with other PhD students, post-doctoral researchers and academic staff based in Leeds, Switzerland and Ghana. This will give you excellent opportunities to learn new skills, build your understanding of international, interdisciplinary research, and be embedded in a network of researchers with diverse interests and backgrounds.