How nature can help people experiencing loneliness

Walking in Wareseley Wood (Matthew Roberts)

Dominic Higgins reports on findings from the BBC's Loneliness Project and what The Wildlife Trusts are doing to help.

Loneliness is felt most intensely by young people aged 16-24. 40% of young people reported feeling lonely ‘often’ or ‘very often’, compared with 27% of the over 75s. This is the key finding of the BBC's Loneliness Experiment - the largest ever survey of its kind. 

So why is this?

Claudia Hammond, the BBC presenter of Radio 4’s ‘All in the Mind’ programme which covered the survey, says “it was noticeable that when everyone was asked at which point in their life they’d felt lonely, even retrospectively, the most common answer people gave was when they were young adults”.

How bad can loneliness be?

In addition to creating anxiety, which can lead to mental health problems, the effects of loneliness can be felt physically – one study has found it had the same impact as smoking 15 cigarettes a day[1]

Nature can help people experiencing loneliness

Understanding and addressing the causes of loneliness is complex. There are many models and interventions currently in use, but we’re pleased to see that Government has recognised that time spent in nature can help people who are experiencing feelings of loneliness. The first page of the Government’s recent 25 Year Environment Plan makes this clear:

 “Spending time in the natural environment – as a resident or a visitor – improves our mental health and feelings of wellbeing. It can combat loneliness and bind communities together.[2],[3]

At The Wildlife Trusts, we believe that everyone deserves to live in a healthy, wildlife-rich natural world. Spending time in the beautiful natural places we look after surrounded by wildlife can have a restorative effect. Wildlife Trusts also run hundreds of friendly, local volunteering groups which are a great way for people to get outside regularly and socialise in a no-pressure environment. An independent study by the University of Essex[4] into Wildlife Trust volunteering programmes found that 95% of participants with low wellbeing who volunteered outdoors once a week reported an improvement in their mental health in just 6 weeks.

Joshua’s Story

Joshua had poor mental health; he had been out of work for over 2 years and consequently spent a lot of time stuck at home with nothing to do. He rarely had a reason to leave his house, which led to a vicious cycle of depression and anxiety.

Due to these challenges, he was referred onto Lancashire Wildlife Trust’s MyPlace programme for young people through the NHS’ local Well Being Service.

For several months Joshua attended a MyPlace session on Monday afternoon each week. He took part in a huge range of outdoor activities, from repairing footpaths to learning bush-craft skills, from going on and leading nature walks to undertaking tree surveys.  Little by little, his confidence improved, and he began interacting more – happily chatting to the other participants on the programme. After a few months, he secured a part-time job at another charity he had started volunteering with after gaining the confidence to do this.

After 2 years of being out of work, dealing with poor mental health and being cut off from others, Joshua turned his life around, with help from The Wildlife Trusts, and the great outdoors:

 “MyPlace got me outside to work in the environment and it helped get me away from the chaos. Even when it rained it got me out. The project made me feel happy, learning new things about nature I wouldn’t have known. I’m on a decent wage and on much more than I was. It’s all come together to help me.”

 

Other Wildlife Trust projects helping to address isolation and loneliness 

Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust help older people (over 50) and other vulnerable and isolated adults in the area to spend more time in nature. Wild at Heart is a community project that uses a hobby-based approach to give people opportunities to try new things and gain the confidence to continue on their own or with family or friends. The project mainly focuses on wildlife gardening, nature photography, and exploring Sheffield and Rotherham. It’s had a huge impact on the lives of many people in Sheffield and Rotherham, giving them purpose, helping them learn new things and enabling them to make new friends.

North Wales Wildlife Trust run the Our Wild Coast project which aims to help both local wildlife and young people suffering from social isolation in rural areas.  Local young people are offered opportunities to enhance their personal development through learning practical skills and building an understanding and connection with the natural environment. From taking part in exciting outdoor activities like snorkelling and coasteering, to volunteering on nature reserves and helping to lead wildlife activities and events in their local communities there’s many experiences on offer.

Find out more

To learn more about how we welcome people, young and old, and help them find a sense of purpose through their local Wildlife Trust, check out our resources below:

Watch a film about our Wild At Heart project in Sheffield

 

Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust