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The world missed an opportunity to test the effects of nature deprivation on mental health during COVID-19 lockdowns, because pre-lockdown control data were unavailable. To restore mental health at population scale in the face of future social disruptions (see Nature593, 331–333; 2021), reliable evidence is needed from large-scale, long-term, repeated, representative population samples (called ‘panels’ or ‘cohorts’). These must include social-science parameters such as access to nature and activities, as well as addressing health and household economics.