A Natural Health Service

Chris Gomersall/2020VISION

In this blog, Dom Higgins, Nature and Wellbeing Manager for The Wildlife Trusts, makes the case for a natural health service in the UK to benefit all our mental health and wellbeing

In its assessment of the direct and indirect contribution made by The Wildlife Trusts to the health and wellbeing of local people, The University of Essex concluded:

“Considered together with the key findings from the Phase 1 literature review, the results suggest that Wildlife Trusts provide significant and important contributions to both the promotion of good public health and to Green Care (the use of nature-based interventions to treat diagnosed illnesses) in the UK.”

The Current State of Mental Health in the UK

  • One in ten children between the ages of 5 and 16 has a diagnosable mental health problem.
  • One in five mothers has depression, anxiety or in some cases psychosis during pregnancy or in the first year after childbirth.
  • One in four adults experiences at least one diagnosable mental health problem in any given year.
  • One in five older people living in the community and 40 per cent of older people living in care homes are affected by depression.

For some time, we have become accustomed to hearing that one in four of us will have a mental health problem in our lifetime, but there is something detached about this often-quoted statistic. It lacks the detail or connecting quality. The NHS Five Year Forward View brings mental health a lot closer to home, making the subject more personal - and more shocking. You start to understand the enormity of the challenge and recognise ourselves, our family and our friends in these statistics; give a name to that one in every four people.

Family Walking (c) Peter Cairns/2020VISION

Peter Cairns/2020VISION

Healthy Nature, Healthy People

On the 10th November, people from across the environment, social and health sectors met to discuss how to transform Mental Health and Dementia Provision in the natural environment. The conference was organised by The Centre for Sustainable Healthcare on behalf of the National Outdoors for All Working Group. Led by Natural England, the group is working with organisations across the Nature, Health and Wellbeing sectors, to promote natural approaches to health.

The day was chaired by Gina Radford, Deputy Chief Medical Officer, with keynote speeches from Gregor Henderson, National lead, Wellbeing and Mental Health, Public Health England and Alistair Burns, the National Clinical Director for Dementia at the NHS, and James Cross, Chief Executive of Natural England. The green shoots (pardon the pun) of a mainstream natural health service are poking through and being taken seriously.

At The Wildlife Trusts, we believe that everyone should have the opportunity to experience the joy of wildlife and wild places in their daily lives
Children at the wildlife trusts

Helena Dolby for Sheffield & Rotherham Wildlife Trust

Alistair Burns told the conference that one third of people who die, die with dementia. He spoke about the cruelty of a disease that disconnects you from yourself, your loved ones and your society. He also told us that the evidence found in the literature review Greening Dementia points to the important role that accessing nature has in improving the quality of life of those with dementia.

Places that are rich in plantlife and wildlife are a wonderful place to connect with other people and nature. Organisations like The Wildlife Trusts provide a purpose. If you feel that what you are doing has a meaningful impact, then you will continue to be active. Having easily accessible spaces, therefore, or bringing nature closer to those that cannot access them, is a matter of social justice.

By working together and taking action in places that are closest to us, we can be a powerful force for change, and by involving those that are most isolated from people and nature, we can help reduce the social and economic costs of ageing alone. Lacking social connections is as damaging to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day (Holt-Lunstad, 2015).

Making a difference

One Warwickshire Wildlife Trust volunteer has eloquently captured the impact on their mental health in this inspiring blog. The difference in just six months is striking. Compare how the writer was feeling in January:

“Tried group therapy workshops & medication”
“Why me?”
“Signed off work for six months…stress, anxiety and depression…set in over the previous two years”.
“Entire days without the world beyond the four safe walls of my house.”
“My whole world had shrunk.”
“I couldn’t be bothered to socialise with friends or family, I took no interest in hobbies.”

….to how they were feeling in June:

“It was lovely to meet up with other volunteers.”
“I felt inspired to start painting again”
“I can see so many changes”
“My health, activity levels and quality of live have improved considerably.”
”Encourage people to get up and give it a go just like I did.”

The transformative nature of the writer’s experience is undeniable and the change is directly attributed to their connection with both people and nature.

Consider the health and social care services this person did not need to use in just six months because they found their way to well-being through their Wildlife Trust.

How many more people like this are there who could benefit from the same nurturing, restorative experience?

When we speak of transforming mental health and dementia provision, we need a process to prescribe cost-effective and easily accessible interventions that work. Being active in natural places (alongside other people) works. There are a huge number of providers, including The Wildlife Trusts, ready to welcome and connect those in need with nature.

I would invite and urge members of local health and social care bodies to harness the impact of a natural health service, complimentary to and in partnership with their local health service.

This blog is one of a series being produced on the theme of ‘Transforming Mental Health and Dementia Provision with the Natural Environment’ to support the conference of that name which took place on the 10th November, at St Barts, London. For further details please contact sarah.preston@naturalengland.org.uk