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Peace of mind

Peace of mind

We find out why nature and the countryside have become so important for maintaining our wellbeing and treating those with mental health problems

Most of us have experienced the sense of calm that comes with time spent in the countryside. The fresh air and distractions of nature soothe the mind, and anxieties can be forgotten, however temporarily. It’s no surprise then that a growing number of health professionals, community workers, naturalists and academics are advocating the use of ‘green therapy’ – time spent immersed in nature – to help those living with mental health difficulties.

The Government’s 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment, published in January, included the need to connect people with the environment to improve health and wellbeing as a key goal. CPRE welcomed this warmly, and we are lobbying for planning policy to recognise the countryside’s contribution to wellbeing having long argued the mental health benefits of tranquillity, dark skies and Green Belts.

Encouragingly, the number of wellbeing projects being set up in green areas around the UK are increasing all the time.

We spoke to the organisers of three such initiatives to find out how their local countryside is helping many people who struggle with their mental health.

Green Army, Isle of Wight

Tackling balsam in Sandown Meadows July 2017 copyright OnTheWight Photo: © On The Wight

In 2011, the Green Army was set up to encourage vulnerable young adults to get outside, engage with nature, and work as a team on conservation projects around the island. The group was recognised by CPRE Isle of Wight in 2014 for its conservation work, receiving the branch’s Merlin Trophy, along with CPRE-sponsored conservation kit.

‘The people who join us are homeless, living in supported accommodation and are neither in employment or education,’ explains project coordinator Claire Hector.

‘Many have come from chaotic family backgrounds and many are living with mental health problems of one kind or another. The Green Army is a unique opportunity for them to spend time away from their day-to-day lives and benefit from the wonderful countryside we have here on the island.’

Jazz Wood is a regular Green Army member and a keen advocate of using time with nature and in the countryside to help those living with mental health issues, having experienced problems herself.

‘Green Army is such a welcoming and friendly community of people,’ she says. 'It has given me my love for the outdoors back, a sense of belonging, and the realisation that getting outside and doing something in nature cheers me up and makes my day so much better.'

‘Nature is therapy,’ she adds. ‘I’m hoping that, through successful projects such as ours, people are beginning to recognise the vital importance of nature and the wild for our brain health.’

Askefield Project, Lincolnshire

The Askefield Project Photo: © The Askefield Project 

Hannah Blevins and her family have only been running the Askefield Project – their small Lincolnshire care farm – since October last year, but already they’re seeing the positive impact that being outside has on those with mental health issues. ‘We have people coming here who arrive tense, shy and nervous and leave laughing,’ says Hannah.

A typical day at the Askefield Project might include anything from feeding animals, moving sheep or building a henhouse (‘But always with lots of tea, coffee and cake!’ adds Hannah). The day is very much led by the visitors and they can choose how they would like to spend their time.

‘For many of our visitors, being in the fresh air and achieving something, however small, is enough to make the day a success. For others it’s the routine or just being around the animals. We have a number of visitors suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder, and working with the animals seems to be particularly beneficial to them.’

MindSCAPE, Wye Valley

mindSCAPE Wye Valley copyright NAAOB Photo: © National Association of AONBs

The Wye Valley has always been a hive of outdoor activity, but for one group, the scenery and fresh air have become a real lifeline. MindSCAPE is a lottery-funded project, developed to enable people with dementia, and their carers, to reconnect with the landscape in a social, creative way. Organised by arts group Artspace Cinderford, the project has proved so successful that further funding is already being sought to take mindSCAPE beyond the four years it was originally intended to run.

The project was set up in 2014 after a consultation held by the Wye Valley Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty found that people with dementia, and their carers, were the group least likely to engage with the outdoors.

To remedy this, mindSCAPE found the perfect location for its sessions – a smallholding and 27 acres of woodland in the Wye Valley owned by the Orchard Trust, a charity providing services for people with disabilities. ‘It’s so important for our participants to feel safe and secure before they can start enjoying the outdoors,’ explains Hannah. ‘But once they’ve got over any anxieties on their first visit, everyone loves it!’

The project uses the arts to engage participants, and emphasises the pleasure gained by just ‘being’ in nature, rather than the idea that you need to walk miles to enjoy the outdoors. ‘It’s wonderful to see how nature can stir the senses of those people with dementia that we see. The touch, sounds and smells of nature often spark memories of happy holidays they may have had, or even memories of childhood.’

This article originally appeared in the spring issue of our membership magazine, Countryside Voice.

People are beginning to recognise the vital importance of nature and the wild for our brain health.




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