Nature is vital for our mental health
Written by Dr Caroline Jessel, Chair & Founder of Dandelion Time
The Natural World
Where do you go on holiday? Chances are it will be somewhere peaceful, perhaps near the sea, or in the mountains or maybe by a lake. Some people go camping and it’s so calm being in woodland or near a river. If your life is frenetic with a lot of pressure you will be aiming to relax and come home refreshed and restored. You have very likely sought out a holiday in a natural environment which we now know is most healing for stress and any mental health difficulties.
We know much more about both the effectiveness of nature for mental health and the mechanisms by which it works. It turns out we all need nature to be healthy and this is especially true for children. If children are deprived of space to run around, the ability to learn from nature and connect with it, there are many negative health impacts.
In Denmark  a study of almost one million people showed that children surrounded by nature when growing up had a staggering 55% lower incidence of mental health problems than those deprived of its benefits. We also know that while the physical health of children has improved enormously over the past few decades, their mental health has if anything worsened. Might this be connected with an increase in urban living and more children kept indoors for long periods? We know that the distance which children can roam unsupervised has contracted hugely over the past few decades. This impacts on their independence and resilience as well as physical fitness and crucially the chance for their imaginations to roam freely too. Children learn and develop through their senses and their physical bodies.
Immersed in Nature
We now understand that physical health and mental health are closely intertwined. For many years though, in western thought they were viewed as separate. The so called mind/body dualism of Descartes which has led to divided services and emphasis on the medical model of care. This fails to treat the mind as an important part of the body. Recent research by Jules Pretty, Professor of Environment and Society at the University of Essex has shed light on the mechanisms by which mental health improves when people are immersed in nature. He and his colleagues have developed a Theory of the Green Mind, to explain in more detail:
“We are proposing a Green Mind Theory (GMT) that links the human mind with brain and body, and connects the body with natural and social environments. The processes are reciprocal: environments shape bodies, brains and minds; minds change body behaviours that shape social interactions and natural capital. GMT offers opportunities for improving individual well-being whilst building towards greener and prosocial economies that could protect the planetary future. The empirical understanding of green minds derives from evidence on neuroscience and brain plasticity (Ricard, 2006; Hanson, 2009, 2013; Doidge, 2013; Goleman, 2013; Fields, 2015), from spiritual and wisdom traditions (Suzuki, 1970; Aitken, 1978; Bachelor, 1997; Christie, 2013; Jinpa, 2013), from mindfulness-related and talking therapies (Hanh, 2008; Kabat-Zinn, 2012), from green exercise activities in nature (Pretty et al., 2005, 2015; Barton and Pretty, 2010), from the lifeways of indigenous groups (Nelson, 1985; Basso, 1996, Berkes, 1999; Pretty, 2014), and from material consumption behaviours and the potential emergence of green and prosocial economies (Pretty, 2007, 2013; Sennett, 2008; Walker, 2014). “
Jules Pretty stresses the importance of habits in our behaviour. The brain does many things on automatic pilot and habits once with us are there often for life. Imagine the change in our society if all of us when young developed healthy habits exercising out of doors and building a strong connection with nature. This would have a huge benefit as we attempt to tackle the greatest challenges of our time: climate change and ecological destruction. There is increasing evidence that concern for the future of our world is having a deleterious effect on our collective mental health. Psychiatrists have now coined a new term, solastalgia, to try to describe the distress we feel at environmental destruction. We also have a relatively new term for working with nature to improve health: ecotherapy.
A recent champion for the natural world is the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton.
As well as taking part in this year’s Chelsea Flower Show designing a garden, she has also presented Blue Peter . She takes her two children outside, whatever the weather, as we do here at Dandelion Time. On Blue Peter she took part in three outdoor activities with the children:
“It encourages creativity, confidence and even a short amount of time – 10-15 minutes outside – makes a huge difference to physical well-being but also to our mental well-being”
When I founded Dandelion Time in 2001, I had an instinctive idea that being outside would help children with difficulties. Connecting with animals and experiencing freedom to play and explore in nature is beneficial to children. The difficulties often stem from family trauma and connected with neurodevelopment issues such as Asperger’s. I was aware that so many children led impoverished lives in terms of their experiences compared with previous generations. I wondered if that had any connection to the rising tide of mental health problems I was seeing in my surgery. It must also be strongly connected with the rise in obesity that is such a huge threat to the long term health of children today. Since then a multitude of research (see Appendix below) has demonstrated the importance of nature, outdoor play and craft activities to health and happiness. We also now know that health inequalities are worsened if children have little access to green space. Thus creating long term problems for society as a whole as well as the health care system. This is something that can be easily and relatively cheaply reversed – strange that we are not doing this at scale!
There are of course a number of organisations that are using the healing power of nature to help children with mental health difficulties. For example on the Isle of Wight Nature Therapy CIC tackles bullying and antisocial behaviour by building sensory resilience, from experiences with animals and nature. Jamie’s Farm works with schools and teenage children offering a week on a rural farm, which has clear measurable benefits for behaviour, school engagement and academic performance.
The Need for Overarching Approach
However a piecemeal approach will exclude many children in need of this help and is much more confusing for commissioners and practitioners in the field. An overarching strategic approach is needed for maximum impact and long term benefits to the health and well being of our children.
The first step to developing a strategic approach is raising awareness of the importance of the issue. We have a wonderful annual festival in Kent which is doing just that! The Wealden Literary Festival showcases all the excellent books that have been written recently on nature. Its relationship with health and human happiness is a strong feature and the whole experience is life enhancing.
Appendix : Extract from Jules Pretty – Theory of Green Mind
We have undertaken over a decade of research into the contexts, effects and outcomes of green exercise and nature-based interventions, showing in a wide variety of contexts that physical activity in the presence of nature improves health and well-being (Pretty et al., 2005, 2007, 2011, 2015; Hine et al., 2008; Barton and Pretty, 2010; Barton et al., 2009, 2012, 2016; Gladwell et al., 2012; Pretty, 2013, 2014; Rogerson et al., 2015, 2016; Wood et al., 2015; see also Loureiro and Veloso, 2017).
We have found no groups who have not benefitted: all ages, genders, ethnicities and social classes respond positively to green exercise. We have shown that all natural environments are beneficial: from urban parks to biodiversity-rich, from small local to large landscapes, from domesticated gardens to the farmed and wild. We coined the phrase dose of nature to articulate that exposure to green exercise is analogous to a medical dose to the body, improving mental health (Barton and Pretty, 2010; see also Hamman and Ivtzan, 2016). We have shown that the deliberate therapeutic use of natural environments (e.g. gardens, allotments, care farms, wild places) has short and long term positive effects on groups under mental stress, including at-risk children and youth, refugees, probationers, dementia sufferers, office workers, and mental health patients. The natural environment is now understood to provide vital health services as well as other environmental services (NEA, 2011; Barton et al., 2016; Geniole et al., 2016; Demoury et al., 2017).