Branching outA pioneering Forestry Commission Scotland initiative has transformed the lives of more than 500 people with mental health issues. Jane Hamilton reports 

When Brian, 64, finally faced up to his alcoholism, he realised how much his mental wellbeing was suffering as well. But little did he think that an outdoor activity scheme would aid his recovery. 

It was Brian’s doctor who referred him to Branching Out, a programme run by Forestry Commission Scotland for mental health service users to take part in weekly woodland-based activities. In 2011, he joined his local group’s weekly meetings at Drumchapel’s Bluebell Woodlands.  

During the course, Brian planted new trees, helped cut back rhododendron bushes, picked up skills in square lashing, and became a dab hand at willow weaving. 

Willow weaving is a task many of the group enjoy and Brian especially found it hugely therapeutic. He created several baskets and platters but his proudest achievement was crafting a walking stick. 

“Branching Out really helped me during my recovery,” he says. “It allowed me to stay focused and I lost over four stones in weight. 

“Making my walking stick from natural tools was inspiring. I was very pleased to take it home and every time I look at it, it reminds me of my fond experiences with the group.” 

Brian has continued to engage with the outdoors and is also currently working towards the John Muir award, part of an environmental achievements scheme designed to encourage people to connect to the natural environment. With level one already under his belt he is determined to succeed in all three stages. 

He is now also training to become a peer support mentor for people starting out with Branching Out. Each week he assists with groups across Glasgow by listening to their troubles and offering a helping hand during outdoor activities. 

“I also kept a diary of my memories throughout the course and whenever I feel down I read through it and I am instantly cheered up,” he says. 

Branching out  

The Branching Out programme started out in 2007 with the aim of encouraging people to use woodland spaces, undertake conservation activities, and learn basic wilderness survival skills.

Research by the Scottish Association for Mental Health has shown people who make use of green spaces significantly increase their physical activity levels, improve their confidence and self-esteem, and tend to enjoy better mental wellbeing. 

The 12-week Branching Out courses, run in partnership with local environmental organisations and mental health services, encourage participants to take part in site walks, tai chi, forest photography, shelter building, tree identification and willow weaving, among other outdoor tasks.

Branching Out was originally designed to last just six months but thanks to positive feedback and clear results, the pilot was expanded and there are currently 20 groups operating across central Scotland. 

The scheme is continuing to develop: over the next two years, £150,000 worth of funding from the Scottish Government’s Sport and Physical Activity Policy Division will see Branching Out continue to help mental health patients for longer. 

The programme is available in eight NHS Health Boards: Greater Glasgow and Clyde, Lothian, Forth Valley and Lanarkshire, Borders, Tayside, and Ayrshire and Arran. 

Kirsty Cathrine first became involved with the project as a community and environment ranger at the Forestry Commission Scotland and has since become Branching Out’s programme manager thanks to her background in ecology and previous experience working with community groups.   

“The scheme has gone from strength to strength since its launch,” Cathrine says. “It has introduced many adults who have mental health issues to their local woodland, enabling them to build their confidence and engage in outdoor activities which can lead to a real sense of achievement. 

“This is a key year for the project as we’re rolling it out to many new areas. We’re really looking forward to continuing our work with local councils, environmental charities, regional parks and mental health teams to ensure our effective outdoor treatment is available in as many places as possible.”  

Training future leaders  

Branching Out’s success has also led to the introduction of a tailored programme designed to train those with potential as future leaders.  

The course has been developed in partnership with healthcare organisations and past leaders and it is hoped the new generation of programme guides will speed up the roll out of the initiative and help make the therapy more widely available. 

Countryside ranger Kerry Thomson completed the training and now looks after her own group in South Lanarkshire. “I feel very privileged to be part of a scheme where service users grow in confidence and gain new skills as the weeks go by,” she says. 

“I received specialised training and I’m convinced of the benefits of the project, both for service users and staff. From my own perspective I’ve also gained a range of new skills from taking part in Branching Out.” 

Kevin O’Neill, mental health and wellbeing development manager for NHS Lanarkshire, recently spent eight months working with the Branching Out team to establish the programme in Lanarkshire. 

“We are very grateful to Forestry Commission Scotland for bringing the programme to the area,” he says. 

“Developing meaning and purpose, being active, connecting with others and learning new things are important for everyone’s wellbeing. 

“The staff and clients who have taken part have described fantastic benefits which just serve to remind us all of the importance of taking time to consider our mental wellbeing and enjoy what the outdoors has to offer.” 

Brendan’s story  

Another person to benefit from Branching Out is Brendan, aged 36. He worked as a journalist before difficulties in his personal life caused his mental wellbeing to suffer and forced him to leave his job in the newsroom. 

Unable to carry out basic tasks, trust other people or even face himself in the mirror, Brendan found day-to-day life a constant struggle. He also suffered from severe sleep deprivation and had trouble remembering dates. 

He was referred to Branching Out as a means of helping him tackle his issues. In 2008, he joined the Castlemilk Branching Out group in their weekly gatherings at Cathkin Braes Country Park in Glasgow. During the course, Brendan took part in clearing debris from woodland areas, crafted dream catchers, built huts from the undergrowth and learnt about the natural environment through the John Muir discovery award. 

Brendan says: “Losing the ability to perform everyday jobs was the hardest thing that ever happened to me. 

“Branching Out encouraged me to overcome these issues by offering activities which allowed me to use my mind as well as take part in physical activity. By completing tasks one by one I started to feel like I could accomplish something and these achievements lifted a huge burden off my shoulders. 

“Engaging with the other participants who were going through the same experiences also assisted in my recovery, as for a long time I’d felt very alone. We worked well together and became a close group of friends.” 

Brendan’s determination to succeed has paid off and he is currently a student at Strathclyde University studying Information and Library Studies.  

“Without Branching Out I would never be in a position to go back to university or think about a new career and for that I am very grateful. Outdoor therapy is such a valuable resource to people going through difficult times and it’s great to hear that the Commission is making it a priority to provide this service across other areas of Scotland.”  

Recognition of the programme’s success was recently honoured at the inaugural RSPB Nature of Scotland Awards 2012. Forestry Commission Scotland scooped the gong in the Innovation category for the Branching Out programme, highlighting its effectiveness as a key stepping stone towards recovery.   

About the author  

Jane Hamilton is an account manager at PR firm The BIG Partnership