13 September 2016

The influence of a dynamic environment on mental health

Feeling dismal? Venture out!

Marco Helbich

Depression and suicide can be influenced by a significant amount of personal and external factors. The environment too can have an effect according to Urban Geographer Marco Helbich at Utrecht University (UU). In context of UU’s research theme Healthy Urban Living, Marco is investigating the influence of mobility and various environments on peoples’ mental health. He has received an ERC Starting Grant of €1.5 million.

Finding scientific evidence supporting the claim that people are happier living in green environments with parks and bright blue ponds than in hulking grey office-like buildings is not difficult. But there are many more environmental factors at play. Urban Geographer Dr Marco Helbich received €1.5 million from the European Research Council to expand knowledge on the causes of depression and suicide within different environmental situations.

Moving between environments

Moving from one environment to another and reducing the duration of stay in each environment can have an effect on mental health. To investigate this shifting (sequencing) and duration, Helbich distinguishes three different environments: a green-blue environment (nature and water); a grey environment (buildings); and a social environment where social interactions take place and the measures of crowdedness are considered.

“In previous depression research, scientists only considered residential neighbourhoods,” says Helbich. “And that is peculiar, because 80 per cent of daily activities occur outside your living area. The environmental exposure experienced throughout a person’s daily life might be a crucial trigger for depression. I am going to investigate how people move around: how long and how often does someone reside in a particular kind of environment, and how is this dynamic environmental exposure related to a person’s mental health.” 

A second major thought in Helbich’s research states that suicide risk is also affected by past environmental exposures over a person’s residential life. Each relocation, for example, from Rotterdam to Utrecht, changes the environmental conditions people are exposed to. These past exposures might be key factors that contribute to suicide later in life.


Helbich uses GPS-enabled smartphones to pinpoint participants location and to analyse their alternations between green-blue and grey environments as well as the duration of each visit. But it’s not just the physical environment that plays an important role, the social environment is important too. Helbich will also measure participant’s proximity to other people during the day. He will make use of the Bluetooth functionality to measure how many smartphones are within close proximity of the participant’s mobile phone. It is expected that significant differences between crowded and quiet places will result. 

Bridging the gap

The factors Helbich is researching are in addition to the many factors related to depression and suicide. “There is still a big gap in research concerning the environmental influence on mental health,” he says. “With my results I not only hope to bridge that gap, but I also hope to clarify insights into important risk and protective factors influencing mental health, so that patients can receive improved care and support.”