Atlanta (CBS ATLANTA) — Exposure to more natural, green space in cities and towns can deliver large, long-lasting benefits to the mental health of the people living in the area.

A new study published in the Environmental Science & Technology journal finds that people who move to greener areas were more likely to have an immediate improvement in mental health that continued for at least 3 years after the move. On the other hand, those moving to urban, more built-up areas suffered a drop in mental health during the process.

The researchers at the University of Exeter Medical School collected data from over 1,000 participants in the process of moving to both greener, less developed areas and less green, urban areas. The study authors adjusted their analysis to eliminate factors of income, employment and education to more accurately pinpoint the effect of urban versus more rural environments.

The researchers say that an increase in green spaces and parks in urban areas could be more thoroughly considered in response to this data.

“We’ve shown that individuals who move to greener areas have significant and long-lasting improvements in mental health,” Dr. Ian Alcock said in a statement. “These findings are important for urban planners thinking about introducing new green spaces to our towns and cities, suggesting they could provide long term and sustained benefits for local communities.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the economic impact of mental illness in the U.S. is substantial. Nearly 25 percent of U.S. adults have a mental illness, costing about $300 billion in 2002 alone. The CDC defines “mental illness” as referring collectively to all diagnosable mental disorders causing sustained abnormal alterations in thinking, mood, or behavior associated with distress and impaired functioning – such as anxiety or depression.

In 2012, the World Health Organization cited depression as the leading cause of mental health disability worldwide.

Co-author of the green spaces study, Dr. Mathew White, hopes that the long-term data collected in the study may be of great benefit to citizens and city planners across the globe.

“We needed to answer important questions about how the effects of green space vary over time,” said White. “Do people experience a novelty effect, enjoying the new green area after the move, but with the novelty then wearing off? Or do they take time to realize the benefits of their new surroundings as they gradually get to know local parks? What we’ve found suggests that the mental health benefits of green space are not only immediate, but sustainable over long periods of time.”

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