Launched in March 2021, 'Nature for Health', managed by the Grater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership has begun sharing the knowledge gained from it’s initial five ‘test and learn’ sites, this vital knowledge will be important for both regional social prescribing efforts and understanding around programmes such as these on a national basis.

Partners from Defra, Natural England, NHS England and NHS Improvement have since visited Greater Manchester to see these two of these sites, ahead of World Mental Health Day on the 10th of October, and witnessed the improvements to community mental health and wellbeing that the programme has resulted in.

“The potential is huge to improve mental health, reduce health inequalities, reduce demand on the health and social care system, and to make green social activities more accessible to everyone in the city-region.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought to the forefront, many of the already existing issues that mental health services have been facing for years. Waiting lists for therapeutic treatment are longer than ever before, and from across the NHS mental health services, referrals are reaching record levels.

Green social prescribing is just one alternative answer to this demand and can incorporate a variety of activities

In Manchester, Sow the City has partnered with Plattfields Market Garden to pilot food growing schemes in the most deprived communities, merging the opportunity for social activity in a ‘green’ environment, with access to free healthy food.

Further afield in Bury, a town in Greater Manchester, the Lancashire Wildlife Trust has been testing which kind of social prescribing activities have attracted communities most in need in their town, from bush craft, carpentry, mindfulness, survey skills and nature walks.

All of the ‘Nature for Health’ initiatives are adding to Greater Manchester’s already existing and well-established range of social prescribing programmes on offer, all with the aim of engaging those individuals most at risk of poor mental health in the support they need whilst enjoying activities in a natural environment.

Vinny, aged 68, was referred to ‘Myplace’ (by a local social prescribing service), which runs sessions in Bury’s Philips Park, also ran by Lancashire Wildlife Trust. Vinny was struggling when he joined Myplace, with depression and the demanding responsibility of caring for his daughter who is diagnosed with fibromyalgia.

Speaking about his experience, Vinny said: “Participating in the group has done more for me than taking more medication, I have learnt so much in a short time and it has helped me realise I have skills that I have forgotten. It has definitely improved my mental health and well-being and I enjoy meeting and chatting with other group members, as well as sharing our skills and knowledge.”

Manager of 'Nature for Health', Jon Grace has said:

“We know far too many people are feeling anxious, unhappy and not satisfied with life. We also know that many of us find green space hugely important to our health and wellbeing. Greater Manchester’s green providers, social prescribers, voluntary organisations and community initiatives are coming together with health, social care and public health to ‘test and learn’ together, helping us connect many more people with nature-based activities to support their health and wellbeing.”

Building on the knowledge gained from ‘Nature for Health’ will be essential in understanding the role green social prescribing might play, in the nation's recovery from the pandemic, especially in terms of addressing the mental health crisis we are currently experiencing.

Director of People and Nature and Natural England, Amanda Craig reflected on her visits to the Greater Manchester sites, saying: “It has been a truly inspirational day: meeting individuals who are coordinating and delivering social prescriptions, hearing personal stories from those taking part and seeing for ourselves, the impact from these initiatives in bringing people together to improve and enjoy the outdoors across Greater Manchester. We have heard so much during Covid about the importance of nature for people’s mental health and seeing these test and learn sites get underway is a major step forward, they have the potential to be transformative, to people’s lives, their health, their communities and to the recovery of nature in our towns and cities.”

The need for alternative solutions to address mental health and health inequalities in the wake of the pandemic is without question, crucial. ‘Nature for Health’ is a fantastic example of just how successful some of these alternatives might be and will hopefully, inspire many other local authorities to invest in social prescribing.