Nature – our life support system

Does prescribing contact with nature to boost mental health actually work? Dom Higgins, nature and well-being manager at The Wildlife Trusts, examines the correlation between participation with the environment and health outcomes

The natural world is the foundation of our health, well-being and prosperity. Healthy ecosystems working in harmony regulate our climate, lock away carbon, clean the air we breathe, the water we drink – and slow the flow to alleviate flooding. A thriving, wildlife-rich environment also benefits our physical and mental health. People with nature and green spaces on their doorstep are more active, mentally resilient and have better all-round health.

You would think that means we put nature first; that governments, institutions and businesses act and make decisions that prioritise nature’s recovery and preservation. But this does not happen. Our relationship with the natural world is in trouble, we are overseeing the destruction of our life-support system.  

The abundance, quality and distribution of wildlife and wild places is reducing rapidly, and people’s personal connection to nature is declining as it becomes a less frequent and less significant part of our daily lives. At the same time, the need for wildlife and wild places in people’s lives is increasing, to help us stay well and recover from illness – particularly when it comes to mental health and illnesses associated with obesity or loneliness.

A health crisis and a natural solution
Around 30 per cent of primary care consultations are for non-medical issues. At least £15 billion a year is being spent on preventable illnesses associated with our lifestyles: 20 million adults in the UK are physically inactive and obesity is on the rise, along with mental ill health, dementia and social isolation. There are services which can more appropriately meet these social needs, but they aren’t available everywhere or they are under-resourced.

Evidence shows that spending time in the natural environment improves our mental well-being and physical health, saving scarce NHS resources. In 2009, Natural England estimated that £2.1 billion would be saved annually through averted health costs if everyone in England had equal access to green space

Health, well-being and The Wildlife Trusts
The Wildlife Trusts believe everyone deserves to live in a healthy, wildlife-rich natural world and will feel better for it. Over the past five years, academics at the University of Essex and Leeds Beckett University have been researching the impact of Wildlife Trust projects programmes. The research shows that engagement with nature improves people’s health and well-being. The work also highlights the importance of projects delivered by Wildlife Trusts for people with poor health and well-being.

The University of Essex’s evaluation of the health and well-being impacts of Wildlife Trusts’ programmes found that 95 per cent of participants who started out with low levels of mental well-being, reported an improvement in just six weeks; and over 12 weeks researchers found that 60 per cent reported becoming more physically active with new volunteers trebling the number of days they were physically active, and 83 per cent improved their mental well-being.

Excellent value for money
Following on from research by Essex’s Schools of Life Sciences; and Sport, Rehabilitation and Exercise Sciences, another analysis was undertaken by the Centre for Health Promotion Research at Leeds Beckett University, developing a Social Return on Investment analysis of Wildlife Trust programmes. They found that: targeted programmes designed for people with a health or social need, showed a social return of £6.88 for every £1 invested. This value was generated from health gains such as improved mental well-being; and, for those attending general volunteering programmes, the value was even higher with a social return of £8.50 for every £1 invested. The research showed a range of benefits, such as increased feelings of positivity and levels of physical activity.

Anne-Marie Bagnall, director of the Centre for Health Promotion Research at Leeds Beckett University says: “Our analysis of the impacts on people taking part in Wildlife Trusts’ nature conservation activities shows an excellent social return on investment for people with all levels of well-being.  

“We can therefore say with confidence that, based on evidence from independent research, these programmes can be effective in both maintaining good wellbeing and tackling poor wellbeing arising from social issues such as loneliness, inactivity and poor mental health. The significant return on investment of conservation activities in nature means that they should be encouraged as part of psychological wellbeing interventions.”

Lived experience
Joshua had been out of work for over two years. He rarely had a reason to leave his house, which led to a cycle of inactivity, depression and anxiety. He was referred onto Lancashire Wildlife Trust’s MyPlace programme, which is run in partnership with NHS Lancashire Care.

After a few months on the programme, Joshua turned his life around with help from The Wildlife Trusts. He said: “It 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.”

Dr Amir Khan, GP and Health Ambassador for The Wildlife Trusts, said: “There is a clear need to invest in nature-based services so that more people can benefit. If more people could access nature programmes I believe that we would see a knock-on effect in our GP surgeries, with fewer people attending for help with preventable or social problems arising from being cut off from others, not getting active or having a purpose.”

To hear more stories about the impact of nature on people’s physical, mental and social wellbeing, watch this short film from Warwickshire Wildlife Trust’s six-week bush-craft programmes – which they deliver in partnership with Mind and the local Recovery and Wellbeing Academy.

What needs to happen
The Wildlife Trusts want to see the government and the NHS invest in social and ‘nature’ prescribing. Projects like My Place show that working together can create a natural health service. Yet despite strong evidence, many current policies do not recognise the effectiveness of nature in improving people’s health and well-being. As a society, we need to value and fund a natural approach to health; it is cost-effective, it works, and it could play a significant role in the prevention and treatment of illnesses, particularly for people who have poor mental health, suffer from stress and anxiety or whose social isolation leads to illness.
1. Daily access to nature for all
“People living in the most deprived areas are 10 times less likely to live in the greenest areas. Indeed, the most affluent 20 per cent of wards in England have five times the amount of parks or general green space than the most deprived 10 per cent of wards.” [Natural Solutions for Tackling Health Inequalities; UCL Institute of Health Equity (September 2014)]

The government’s 25 Year Environment Plan pledged to ‘develop a Nature Recovery Network to protect and restore wildlife’. As part of the Greener UK coalition, we will continue for this to be included in the government’s Environment Bill when it rises once more in the next Parliament. We need this to not only reverse the decline of our natural world but ensure everyone, whatever their background, has access to wildlife-rich spaces.

Access to nature improves physical health and mental well-being. Communities need wildlife-rich natural spaces near the places where people live and work so they can easily access them. Providing equal access to nature will through positive planning will help reduce health inequalities.

2. Investment in tackling preventable illness
With over 2,300 reserves, and a range of activities that bring physical and mental health benefits, The Wildlife Trusts’ volunteering and wellbeing schemes help to tackle isolation and inactivity in safe spaces. We want to make socialising, volunteering, exercise and play in wildlife-rich natural places central to everyone’s daily life.

We need investment to increase green exercise and nature volunteering programmes which provide twin benefits: for those getting the health benefits from taking part; and for local communities, who benefit from having wildlife-rich spaces on their doorstep.

3. Nature on Prescription
The 25 Year Environment Plan’s recognition of the potential for ‘nature prescribing’ is important. Every year in the UK, one in four people experience a mental health problem.

In October, the National Academy for Social Prescribing was launched by Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. The remit of the academy includes raising awareness of social prescribing, exploring new ways of funding it and promoting cross sector working.

Humans are designed to be part of a social group, in an active, natural environment and to have a purpose. Nature needs to be at the heart of this health revolution – and in every aspect of our lives. For the people taking part, wider public – and for the planet. 

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