Is urban green space associated with lower mental healthcare expenditure?

Astell-Burt, Thomas, Navakatikyan, Michael, Eckermann, Simon, Hackett, Maree orcid iconORCID: 0000-0003-1211-9087 and Feng, Xiaoqi (2022) Is urban green space associated with lower mental healthcare expenditure? Social Science & Medicine, 292 . p. 114503.

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While the evidence of mental health benefits from investing in green space accumulates, claims of reduced healthcare expenditure are rarely supported by evidence from analyses of actual healthcare data. Additionally, the question of ‘who pays?’ has been ignored. We addressed these gaps using person-level data in three Australian cities.

55,339 participants with a mean follow-up time of 4.97 years in the Sax Institute's 45 and Up Study (wave 2, collected 2012–2015) were linked to fee-for-service records of antidepressant prescriptions and talking therapy subsidised by the Australian Government (including data on per unit fee, state subsidy, and individual co-payment). Total green space, tree canopy and open grass within 1.6 km road network distances were linked to each participant. Multilevel logistic, negative binomial, and generalised linear models with gamma distribution adjusted for demographic and socioeconomic confounders were used to assess association between each green space variable and prescribing/referral and costs of antidepressants and talking therapy.

Prescription of at least one course of antidepressants occurred for 20.01% (n = 11,071). Referral for at least one session of talking therapy occurred in 8.95% (n = 4954). 13,482 participants (24.4%) had either a prescription or a referral. A 10% increase in green space was associated with higher levels of antidepressant prescribing (e.g. incident rate ratio (IRR) = 1.06, 95%CI = 1.04–1.08). Tree canopy was not associated with antidepressant prescribing or referrals for talking therapy. Open grass was associated with higher odds (OR = 1.17, 95%CI = 1.13–1.20) and counts (IRR = 1.05, 95%CI = 1.02–1.08) of antidepressant prescriptions. Open grass was also associated with lower odds (OR = 0.87, 95%CI = 0.82–0.92) and counts (IRR = 0.93, 95%CI = 0.90–0.96) of talking therapy referrals. Open grass was associated with higher total and mean per-person levels of expenditure on antidepressant prescriptions.

Although green space supports mental health, these unexpected results provide pause for reflection on whether greening strategies will always result in purported reductions in mental healthcare expenditure.

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