The Center research in environmental psychology (EP) is driven by our expertise and competitive advantage in the areas below. We are driving innovation in these fields by: firstly, using cutting edge technologies - such as mobile neural imaging and daylight sensors; secondly, by applying novel research methods to the EP field – such as the use of cortisol as a biomarker of stress; and thirdly, by applying a thoroughly inter-disciplinary and integrative approach to addressing health problems. By further catalysing on UVa’s institutional strengths and wider Faculty, the Center is poised to build further research excellence in these niche areas.
1. Mental Health
Mental health is one of the most pressing global health challenges of the future, with depression identified as the second most debilitating disease worldwide (WHO 2014). In addition, rising stress is national public health priority with 31 percent of Americans likely to suffer from a stress related problem at some point in their lifetime — the worst rate in the world (WHO 2011). The Center is identifying how the built environment can be designed to improve mental wellbeing focusing on:
- Stress research: we have built a stress-environment research consortium to develop new national capacity to measure and understand the link between the built environment and stress mitigation, addressing gender, race, and income disparities.
- Brain health and aging: we are applying new technologies – such as mobile EEG – to understand how to improve cognitive health in older people by, for example, offering environments that improve mobility - in turn building grey brain matter - and increasing access to daylight which impacts on circadian efficiency, sleep and cognitive abilities.
- Design of mental health care facilities: the design of psychiatric hospitals and behavioral units is a vital – and neglected - area of research to advance, particularly in relation to child and adolescent wellbeing, a niche area of expertise within the Center.
- Psychiatric disorders: the Center brings valuable research expertise in how the built environment can be designed to alleviate specific mental health problems such as schizophrenia and autism.
2. Health equity
The built environment is a principal source of inequities in health and wellbeing. Health disparities are geographic and particularly profound in Virginia. The Center is committed – in such a diverse state – to fostering collaborations with our Faculty and community health practitioners to focus research and practice on problems of health equity, particularly mental wellbeing. An area of strength is in identifying natural solutions to tackling heath equity issues including the benefits of green spaces to health and wellbeing.
3. Natural systems
Our team has a wealth of expertise in how to utilize the natural environment to improve physical health, mental and social wellbeing across a spectrum of scales – from hospitals, schools, the workplace to the wider neighborhood. A new area of research we are developing is how natural environments can help build more resilient communities, particularly social capital and social cohesion benefits, that help buffer against stressful and traumatic life events, including natural disasters.