Around 1 in 4 patients make an appointment with their doctor because they have a social need rather than a medical problem. This means that they lack company – a real person to talk to – or the right support to help them find something meaningful to fill their time. In short, they are lonely. Being lonely creates feelings of anxiety, which can often lead to more serious mental health problems. The effects of loneliness can also be felt physically – one study found it had the same impact as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. One of the most effective ways of combatting this is to get together with other people in the great outdoors. Without realising it, your levels of physical activity grow – as does your social circle; you start to feel happier, more energised – you notice the good things in life such as the local wildlife, and you start to feel connected to other people: this is nature on prescription.
Does it work?
An independent study by the University of Essex 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. This helps people from all walks of life. People like Joshua.
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. 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.”
Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust set up Wild at Heart to deliver activities for older people and other vulnerable and isolated adults to improve their health and wellbeing, reduce isolation and give them the confidence to get out and about in their community. Gerry struggled when his wife died, and his life quickly unravelled; he found happiness again through Wild at Heart – see this short film of his story.
“We do many many things that literally you wouldn’t do unless you belonged to a group. Being in a group gives you the confidence. Somebody’s always encouraging you, or you’re encouraging them” Gerry, Wild at Heart participant
Giving more people more of a say over their own health and wellbeing makes complete sense. The Wildlife Trusts is ideally placed to help as we are a grassroots movement made up of people from all walks of life. People are happier and healthier when they feel they are a part of a local community and connected to nature; whether this is a local park to sit in, a beach to walk along or a local nature reserve to care for. The more people we reach, the more we can help alleviate pressure on GPs and the wider health system. The Wildlife Trusts are well and truly part of this health revolution - we believe that everyone deserves to live in a healthy, wildlife-rich natural world – and we will all feel better for it. Happy Social Prescribing Day!
 Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: a meta-analytic review (Holt-Lunstad, 2015)
[2} The Health and Wellbeing Impacts of Volunteering with The Wildlife Trusts (The School of Sport, Rehabilitation and Exercise Sciences; University of Essex)