Connecting with our natural environment is an essential part of what it means to be human, writes Jasmine Rees.

The natural world provides us with everything we need to survive - food, water, clean air, energy and shelter. It is the foundation of our very existence.

But the environment also provides us with other important, less visible benefits. Studies show that spending time in natural spaces can reduce stress, improve sleep, and reduce symptoms of disorders such as anxiety and depression. Exposure to the natural world helps humans live happier, healthier lives.

However, many of us fail to reap these benefits. For most people in the UK, regularly spending time in nature is the exception rather than the rule. Urbanisation and increased screen time, amongst other factors, means that we spend the majority of our time indoors. On top of this, our appalling treatment of the natural world means that the ecosystems we depend on are rapidly declining.

Seeking nature in 2020

In fact, 2020 has proved to be something of a wake-up call. With most of us stuck inside as a result of repeated lockdowns, people have increasingly sought solace in nature. Spaces like parks and gardens have helped us to escape the confines of our own homes and forget about the chaos caused by the pandemic.

Certainly, people are beginning to realise just how far our mental health depends on the environment. Back in May, a study by Campaign to Protect Rural England and WI found that 57% of people said lockdown had made them more aware of green spaces for mental health and wellbeing, and 63% said protecting green spaces should be a higher priority after lockdown. The pandemic has highlighted, more than ever, that engaging with the natural world is essential for humans to function properly.

Ecotherapy and the benefits of spending more time outside

Ecotherapy provides a multitude of benefits for individuals with clearly defined needs, as well as members of the general public. Also known as green care or nature-based interventions, it is a therapeutic approach that involves taking part in structured outdoor activities such as food growing, gardening and farming conservation work. Ecotherapy initiatives have been proven to help alleviate symptoms of conditions ranging from ADHD to Dementia. Based on the idea that the environment is necessary for optimal wellbeing, ecotherapy achieves results by helping users shape and engage with the natural world.

Programmes run by The Conservation Volunteers (TCV), for example, encourage groups of individuals to enhance local areas by participating in tasks like sowing meadows and planting trees. Studies on the effectiveness of these programmes show users experiencing increased levels of self-esteem, improvements in overall mood, lower levels of stress, and a sense of feeling calm and at ease. One user suffering from depression described the experience as a ‘therapy tool’, stating that ‘when nothing else had worked, wildlife and conservation had been the key.’

Ecotherapy is so effective because of its holistic approach - it provides the opportunity for individuals to build supportive social networks and immerse themselves in the natural world, whilst also increasing fitness levels and giving users a sense of purpose. By connecting with the environment in a way that is meaningful and community-focused, users can achieve a wide range of positive mental health outcomes.

Re-thinking our place in the natural world

Although by no means a comprehensive solution for individuals with complex mental health needs, ecotherapy provides us with a model for the future and a basis on which to build a better society. Returning to nature can help us to tackle some of the biggest problems currently facing our collective mental health, namely isolation, stress, low levels of physical activity and lack of purpose.

Ecotherapy shows that the environment, without doubt, is part of the foundations of our wellbeing. Experiencing nature has profoundly restorative effects and allows us to rediscover our ties to both people and places - it helps us meet our need for connection and identity, ultimately giving our lives an enhanced sense of meaning.

It follows from this that protecting our environment is not just an issue for those concerned about the future of our planet, but for anyone concerned about our collective mental health. We are not separate from nature, but are an integral part of it. Failing to protect the natural world means putting our own wellbeing at risk.