Pre-Covid, a survey of GPs revealed that two in five appointments involved mental health, and the Health Survey for England 2019 found that 28% of adults were obese. Considering the last year of lockdowns and Covid-19, those figures are only expected to have gotten worse. Doctors would usually treat these conditions with medication, therapy, or dieting – but what if there was a more holistic solution?
The theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week highlights the role of nature and the outdoors on our mental wellbeing. During the pandemic, many of us have found a new appreciation for our regular contact with the outside world and have realised that we have taken for granted the green spaces available to us.
And as the gloom of the winter lockdown lifts and blue skies coincide with the loosening of restrictions, many of us will jump at the opportunity to reconnect with the outdoors. This is partially due to the claustrophobia of lockdown but also because getting into nature is critical for our physical and mental wellbeing.
Green spaces are increasingly being recognised for their therapeutic effects. For example, recent research papers published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health showed that when people are prompted to notice the relaxing aspects of nature, their mental health improves.
And research from the Mental Health Foundation on the mental health impacts of the pandemic showed that going for walks in nature was one of our top coping strategies and 45% of us reported that being in green spaces had been vital for our mental health.
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Nature is just what the doctor ordered
The Thriving Community Fund, led by the National Academy for Social Prescribing (NASP), has announced that at least 7,500 more people will be able to connect to nature for their health and wellbeing, thanks to ten innovative green social prescribing projects across the country.
James Sanderson, CEO of the NASP, commented that natural solutions are essential to promote improvements in the physical and mental health of the public in the aftermath of the last year.
He added: “Thriving Communities Fund projects focusing on green social prescribing will enable more people to be connected to green, outdoors and nature-based activities through social prescribing link workers. We’re delighted to see that the funded projects are already making progress to embed green social prescribing in local health care.”
Social prescribing is when a GP or health care professional connects an individual with a link worker who helps people needing support make contact with community-based activities that promote their health and wellbeing needs. Examples of green social prescribing would be outdoor exercises, travel, care farming, community gardening, conservation, green gyms, and outdoor arts and culture.
Community projects that promote nature are popping up more and more, as in July 2020, environment secretary George Eustice announced a £4 million investment for a cross-government project to prevent and tackle mental ill-health through green social prescribing.
One such project, Partners in Plymouth, provides a range of health and wellbeing activities, including physical activity, outdoor theatre, and conservation. Their spokesperson commented: “Many vulnerable people that do not have access nor the disposable income to discover the natural environment around our city, and therefore the park, which is in walking distance, is their potential gateway to a green environment.”
Green social prescribing, therefore, is not just about physical or mental health but additionally is about enabling engagement with nature in urban settings. Moreover, organisations like London National Park City help disprove the misconception that nature is a suburban or rural affair and that nature-based solutions for our mental and physical health can be successful even in a concrete jungle.
Jim Burt, Head of Development and Partnerships at NASP, encouraged anyone needing support and are interested in receiving it through nature-based community activities to contact their local GP or healthcare professional: “Social prescribing link workers [will then] help people to connect with nature-based activities within their local community, based on what matters to them, to improve their physical and mental health and wellbeing.”