Written by Mark Rowland, Chief Executive, Mental Health Foundation
‘There is something to be wondered at in all of Nature’ – Aristotle
In the first lockdown, I called an elderly friend. She lives alone and had recently had a fall. Separated from her community, she had lost all in-person contact. When I asked her how she had got through it, she told me it was taking daily comfort from watching the birds sing to each other on the fence and the flowers re-emerge from the frosts of winter.
During long months of the pandemic, millions of us turned to nature. Our research on the mental health impacts of the pandemic showed going for walks outside was one of our top coping strategies and 45% of us reported being in green spaces had been vital for our mental health. Websites which showed footage from webcams of wildlife saw hits increase by over 2000%. Wider studies also found that during lockdowns, people not only spent more time in nature but were noticing it more.
It was as if we were re-discovering at our most fragile point our fundamental human need to connect with nature.
Nature and our mental health
Nature is so central to our psychological and emotional health, that it’s almost impossible to realise good mental health for all without a greater connection to the natural world. For most of human history, we lived as part of nature. It is only in the last five generations that so many of us have lived and worked in a context that is largely separated from nature. And it is only since a 1960s study in the US found that patients who were treated in hospitals with a view of nature recovered faster, that science has started to unpack the extraordinary health benefits.
During Mental Health Awareness Week 2021, we will pull together the evidence that demonstrates the powerful benefits of nature for our mental health. We will look at nature’s unique ability to not only bring consolation in times of stress, but also increase our creativity, empathy and a sense of wonder. It turns out that it is not just being in nature but how we open ourselves up and interact with nature that counts. We will show that even small contacts with nature can reduce feelings of social isolation and be effective in protecting our mental health, and preventing distress.
Nature is our great untapped resource for a mentally healthy future.
Despite this, many of us are not accessing or benefitting from nature. Teenagers in particular appear to be less connected with nature and around 13% of UK households have no access to a garden. We want to challenge the disparities in who is and who isn’t able to experience nature. Nature is not a luxury. It is a resource that must be available for everyone to enjoy – as basic as having access to clean water or a safe roof over our heads. Local and national governments need to consider their role in making this a reality for everyone, and we will be talking about how they can do so during the week.
What are the goals for the week?
We have two clear aims. Firstly, to inspire more people to connect with nature in new ways, noticing the impact that this connection can have for their mental health. Secondly, to convince decision makers at all levels that access to and quality of nature is a mental health and social justice issue as well as an environmental one.
2021 is going be a huge year for nature: a new Environment Bill will go through the UK Parliament which will shape the natural world for generations to come; the UK will host the G7 nations where creating a greener future will be a key priority and a historic international UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) will be hosted in Glasgow in November.
There could not be a more important time to understand the links between nature and mental health.
What you can do
Stories are the best tools we have to influence change. Unless we can demonstrate nature’s role in bringing solace and joy to our lives, it will remain under-valued and under-utilised.
We want to hear your stories of how nature has supported your mental health. This might be as a simple as tending to a house plant, listening to the birds, touching the bark of trees, smelling flowers or writing a poem about our favourite nature spot.
Whatever it is for you, we invite you to #ConnectWithNature and share what this means for you.
During Mental Health Awareness Week, we are asking you to do three things:
- Experience nature: take time to recognise and grow your connection with nature during the week. Take a moment to notice and celebrate nature in your daily life. You might be surprised by what you notice!
- Share nature: Take a photo, video or sound recording and share the connections you’ve made during the week, to inspire others. Join the discussion on how you’re connecting with nature by using the hashtags #ConnectWithNature #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek
- Talk about nature: use our tips, school packs, research and policy guides to discuss in your family, school, workplace and community how you can help encourage people to find new ways to connect with nature in your local environment.
For more information about this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week visit mentalhealth.org.uk/mhaw or join the conversation on social media using #ConnectWithNature and #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek