Over the last year, with access to the usual pathways of NHS facilitated support, therapy and interventions immeasurably impacted, many have been turning to alternative treatments. Holistic, social prescribing treatments are growing in popularity and the shift doesn’t seem to be slowing down. We spoke to Jane Mohan from the Green Light trust, a Suffolk based charity with a ‘green care’, holistic approach to wellbeing about their own unique perspective on social prescribing and how it can change people’s lives.
Firstly, why not tell our readers a little bit about what the Green Light Trust is and what it means to those working within it?
"The Green Light Trust (GLT) was founded in 1989 in Suffolk, and it now supports over 2000 participants annually both adults, children and young people, aged 5 to 80. All our participants face challenges, which range from general wellbeing to severe mental health issues. Some are on the road to recovery from substance addiction or escaping from an abusive relationship. Some of the young people and children that we support have been excluded from school and have severe educational needs or learning disabilities. The range of the challenges that the participants face are diverse and varied."
"The Trust works with people not on people; providing them with the tools to take incremental steps, little by little, week by week"
"The woods provide a safe green space which together with the structured programme that the GLT supports participants to put their lives back on track. The woods provide the space for participants to relax and reconnect with nature while learning new skills which the participants can take away and incorporate into their lives every day. This could be learning how to light a fire through to wood crafting skills to make a practical kitchen implement such as a spoon or spatula through to how to cook a healthy meal. The meal that is given to them on the day they come onto a course maybe the only hot meal that the participant eats that week. In addition, some of the work in the woods involves woodland conservation to preserve the character and upkeep of the woods for future generations."
"The green space and woodland are the classroom"
Photograph of the GLT campsite is credited to John Ferguson.
"Most of the programmes run over several weeks, building good habits. This means that there is an increased chance of them carrying on the progress they have made on the course and perhaps even in time coming back to volunteer helping the full time GLT employees to run the programmes. Around 10% of staff are former participants who have gone on to volunteer and then gone onto join the staff at the Green Light Trust. Current volunteers include one former participant who is studying for a degree in environmental management whilst others have left behind over 40 years of addiction to stay clean and become a volunteer to help others in their recovery journey."
"The woodlands provide a safe space for the participants to just be if they want, or to join in the activities if they want; it’s their freedom to choose – a chance to relax, to find their own way. As one participant put it, “it’s therapy by stealth – sitting around the fire chatting or sitting on a safe horse working with a piece of wood – I relax. The woods are the best place in the world”."
In the introductory video with CEO Tom Brown on your website, Tom mentions that a guiding principle of the Green Light Trust is giving marginalised peoples who might not usually get to access green, natural spaces, the opportunity to do so. Why specifically focus on these people?
"Access to green space should be a fundamental right like the expectation that when you turn on the tap that you get clean water to drink. Sadly, access to green space is not equal. During lockdown, 1 in 4 of experienced issues with mental health and lots of us got out into our gardens or went out for a walk in a green space. Sadly, many couldn’t do this. 13% of UK households have no gardens and around 40% of people from black and ethnic minority backgrounds live in the most green-deprived areas compared to 14% of white people. 2.69 million of us in the UK do not live within 10 minutes’ walk of a green space (10 mins is considered the threshold of far people will walk)."
"During the pandemic, 71% of children from ethnic minority backgrounds reported spending less time outside compared to 57% of white children"
"The average amount of green space each person in the UK has is 32.94m squared, but in the most deprived areas this number falls to 9m squared – the size of the average garden shed. Three quarters, 73% of children from households with annual income below £17,000 spent less time outside compared to 57% from households with an annual income above £17,000. The inequality is stark. Access to nature has long been known to have great health benefits so we need to focus on those of us in our community who do not normally have access to the benefit of nature to level up this inequality. It has been known for a long time that nature has a powerful benefit on our mental wellbeing and general health - Florence Nightingale noticed that injured soldiers stood a better chance of recovery if they had a view out of their window onto green fields and trees."
"The University of Essex did some research published in 2021 about the benefits of the nature-based interventions provided by The Green Light Trust and they amount to considerable financial savings on public resources. The researchers found that adults taking part in programmes run by The Green Light Trust in year one, resulted in a 28% reduction in GP appointments and a 24% fall in visits to hospital Accident & Emergency departments. This equates to a direct cost saving per individual in year one of £831 and £6,456 after 10 years."
"This does not reflect the overall ratio of public benefit to private cost which is estimated at a saving of £15.10 for every pound invested in the programme in year one, rising further, up to £27.10 in year 10."
"Using the Treasury’s Green Book (2019), it was further calculated that the total cost versus benefit of these types of interventions would be significantly more. In year one, these figures equated to £14,332 per person based on those participants who made a full recovery from a broad range of challenges affecting health outcomes such as substance abuse and mental wellbeing. This rose to savings of nearly £24,000 over a decade."
"Prevention is better than cure and the green care interventions change participants lives. To help those who are the most marginalised in our society, just makes sense."
- See also: 'How The Green Task Force is combining nature, horticultural work and healing for veterans'
- See also: 'How nature has grounded me in the here and now during trauma recovery'
- See also: 'Can animals teach us how to better treat people with complex mental disorders?'
Following on from the previous question, after this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week and its theme of nature; there has been much discussion around the fact that there isn’t equal opportunity to access green spaces, as you acknowledged. The Mental Health Foundation want to push the government to change this, with Chief Exec saying “That is why the Mental Health Foundation is recommending Government prioritise support for the mental health benefits of nature in public policy and employ specific measurements around connection with nature as evidence of impact… Nature is a simple but fundamental way we can support and improve the mental health of millions of people. It’s vital we make that link and put it at the heart of how we build our society.” What is your perspective on this and how it relates to the people who come to the Green Light Trust for support?
"We fundamentally believe that support for green care is fundamental to the recovery programme both from Covid and levelling up the inequality in our society. As the research which the Green Light Trust has done with the University of Essex the benefits to individuals and society are clear."
You recently got some great press on the BBC from a gentleman who had a life changing experience on your courses for those in recovery from alcohol and substance misuse, can you tell us a little bit about the choice to include courses specifically catered towards those in recovery and why nature is such a helpful tool in that recovery?
"Our programmes help all those who are struggling in life. Addiction, whether its alcohol, substance misuse or food addiction mask real issues of poor mental health and wellbeing. The very fact that participants are in a green space helps - the woodland calms them. As one participant recounted: they couldn’t attend therapy in a building as they felt trapped. In the woods, if chatting in the group becomes too much then they can take themselves of for a walk until they felt better and then they can choose to continue. The impact of nature on our wellbeing as human beings has been long recognised. Benefits of nature on our mental wellbeing are well known and combine that with the purposeful activity which the GLT delivers through its programmes, enables most of our participants to make a full recovery."
"Nature itself calms us as human beings."
You also provide women only groups for mental health support, why do you think it is important to recognise specific safe spaces?
"Many of the women who attend our mental health support groups have been involved in abusive relationships with men. We think it is important to provide and recognises spaces which meet the needs of specific groups. Domestic abuse soared during the pandemic as lockdown measures trapped victims indoors with their abusers and inflamed pre-existing patterns of abuse. A report released by MPs at the end of April last year revealed domestic abuse killings in the first 21 days of the first lockdown were double the total of an average period in the past decade. If our interventions in this area were going to be successful as an organization, we needed to offer a safe space where women who had potentially been in this situation could start the process of their recovery without fear."
Lastly, as mentioned previously, the theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week was nature, and as a result the impact of nature on our wellbeing and the importance of it has been getting a lot of attention. Nature is at the very heart of your charity and in everything you do: what hopes do you have for the future of the Green Light Trust? What place do you think ‘green care’ will and should have in the future of holistic and social prescribing-based interventions for mental health?
"Nature Based Interventions and green care are fundamental to our wellbeing and should be at the heart of nature-based prescribing for mental health. There is no doubt that the work at the trust we do has the potential to save millions of pounds for the NHS and for other public services."
"The Green light Trust is about building health, hope and happiness through the power of nature"
"The pandemic has given us time to have a rethink – a pause. This is the time to refocus and put nature-based interventions at the heart of providing solutions to the burgeoning Mental health crisis in the UK. Nature based interventions are not only solutions, but they are cost effective, and they work."
You can find out more about the Green Light Trust, their available courses and their 'guiding principles' here.