Blog: How nature can benefit your mental health
Published: 13 May 2021
In a year of Covid-19 restrictions and lockdowns, millions of people have discovered how being in nature supports and protects our mental wellbeing. With the loss of connection to friends, family and colleagues, and with the majority of our usual coping strategies not available to us, nature has been one of the few resources we have been able to access. And it has proved to be a lifeline for many.
"For me, the surprise is how little nature-based interventions feature in the UK’s mental health services, despite all the evidence of their positive impact on mental wellbeing." - Debbie Frances, Fellow
In recognition of the vital role the natural world has played in supporting people’s mental health during this difficult time, the theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week is ‘nature and the environment’. Whether that be the countryside, urban parks and gardens, rivers and coasts, or plants and wildlife closer to home, lockdown has brought a greater appreciation of the value of our green and blue spaces.
And yet the value of nature has long been known and celebrated. Over many hundreds of years, countless authors, poets, spiritual teachers, environmentalists, doctors and scientists have expressed the power of nature as a healing agent for mind, body and soul. But somewhere this ancient wisdom has been lost, and only now are we rediscovering this knowledge, and recognising its true worth through the global impact of Covid-19.
Results of research carried out during the pandemic indicate that, under stressful circumstances (such as lockdown), spending time outdoors in nature, or having access to a garden or balcony, appear to reduce stress, depression and anxiety. Even a view of nature from a window decreases the risk of developing the symptoms of depression. But such research findings are not new. Research carried out in the 1970s identified the restorative impact of a view of nature for hospital patients recovering from surgery. So in many ways there should be no great surprise about these new research findings.
For me, the surprise is how little nature-based interventions feature in the UK’s mental health services, despite all the evidence of their positive impact on mental wellbeing. My Churchill Fellowship took me to Australia and Finland in late 2019 and early 2020, to research initiatives that prevent the escalation and recurrence of mental illness in young people.
A consistent theme that emerged throughout my travels was the role of outdoor nature programmes and activities in improving mental wellbeing. From wilderness therapy to care farming, adventure programmes to targeted rehabilitation interventions, the power of nature featured in a number of the projects and organisations I visited. Even within child and adolescent psychiatric inpatient facilities, nature was brought to those who were not able to go to it, in the form of murals and plants in both the indoor and outdoor spaces. In Norway a public health child and adolescent inpatient unit within Sørlandet Hospital has taken the use of nature a step further, by integrating wilderness therapy into its programme of support for those with serious mental illness.
A photograph of Charmouth beach in Dorset taken by Debbie during lockdown
‘Green care‘ is an umbrella term for structured therapeutic interventions that take place in natural surroundings, and it offers a valuable alternative to traditional talking therapies. For adolescents impacted by mental health difficulties, many of whom may have experienced childhood trauma, it can be hard to walk into an office to sit and talk to a therapist for an hour. Nature-based interventions allow for the development of a more equal relationship between the client and therapist, which moves beyond the power imbalance inherent within traditional mental health services.
As a parent carer of a young adult with a severe mental illness who has spent the majority of the past three years as an inpatient in a number of different psychiatric units across England, I have been struck by the lack of access to nature and natural environments these facilities offer - and I have seen the consequence of this for my daughter. Many units completely lack accessible outside areas, while in others these spaces are often bleak and uninspiring, devoid of plants, flowers and grass. For those in our society who are most mentally unwell and vulnerable, the realities of the lockdown restrictions that so many of us have struggled to cope with, over the past year, are the norm. Despite all that is known about the positive impact of access to nature, those who might most benefit from it are often deprived of its therapeutic virtues, sometimes for many months at a time.
‘Nature-deficit disorder’, a concept first introduced by journalist and author Richard Louv, describes the human cost of spending more time indoors and the consequent loss of connection with the natural environment. Although it is not recognised as a formal diagnosis, there are known psychological, physical and cognitive costs of human alienation from nature, particularly for children – depression, anxiety, attention-deficit symptoms and vitamin D deficiency, to name but a few. It is therefore something of a dichotomy that an inpatient environment, whose role is to aid recovery from mental illness, may in fact compound the issues by denying access to nature and the natural environment.
Mark Rowland, Chief Executive of the Mental Health Foundation, said of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, “We want to explore why nature is so vital for our mental health and the barriers that currently exist to enjoying those benefits”. There is now clear evidence that access to nature is crucial for our mental health and as a nation we have found that out during the past year of lockdowns.
So if the purpose of this week is to start a national conversation about the protective benefits of the natural environment, we must ensure that those in our inpatient units are not forgotten. Research suggests that we have to redesign services to ensure they too have access to nature, whether that be through outdoor activities and spaces, nature artwork, or a new era of virtual reality technologies that are making it possible to bring nature to people in innovative ways.
Covid-19 restrictions have brought the importance of nature to our mental health to national consciousness - the evidence is there, written large for all to see. And now it is finally being recognised within everyday life, perhaps this will be the impetus needed to integrate nature-based therapeutic programmes into all of our mental health services, from prevention through to inpatient services.
As Danish author Hans Christian Andersen once said, “Just living is not enough. One must have sunshine, freedom, and a little flower.”