Today’s blog will look at the research report produced by the Mental Health Foundation and break down what stood out to me.

Mental Health Foundation's Nature Research

"Mental Health Awareness Week 2021 Nature" bubble text surrounded by birds and flowers and a green ribbon.

As always, to inform policymakers, journalists, researchers and others interested in the MHF’s work, the usual PDF report has been released. 

Like in previous years, this blog will break down some of those statistics into an easy to read format and share what stood out to me. 

I have chosen to base this blog on the version for England. However, if you are in Scotland, there is a separate version with unique statistics and policy recommendations. 

Let’s get into it.

During the pandemic

It’s no surprise that going for walks outside was one of our top coping strategies during the pandemic while taking our “one form of exercise per day.” 73% of adults in a YouGov poll said that connecting with nature had been important to manage their mental health and 75% wants the government to do more to encourage us to connect with nature. 

This makes sense. During lockdown going outside has been an escape from homeworking, family life or just the four walls. Being able to take a walk in the countryside and see something different. But it’s not just lockdown that’s caused nature to help our mental health.

49% said that being close to nature helped them cope with stress. The MHF talk about this idea of “connectedness” and suggest a 5 step pathway to being aware of the senses, emotion, beauty and meaning of nature and then showing compassion back. I’d describe this as being present and focusing on the current moment. I talked about nature’s impact on my mental health yesterday, so this is absolutely something I would agree with.

The Mental Health Foundation lists some of the research and statistics that support this, such as 62% saying they felt the benefits of spending time in the countryside.

Inequality

There is no getting away from the inequalities that exist in most areas of mental health. This is highlighted by the most affluent 20% of wards in England having five times the number of green space and parks than the 10% most deprived wards.

Nature is so vital to our mental wellbeing, as much as MHF suggest that “universal access to nature can reduce mental health inequalities.” The pandemic has certainly reminded me of the benefits of nature, but while we’re spreading awareness this week, it’s important to remember not everyone shares in this.  

We have to acknowledge that there are barriers to accessing nature. The MHF found 23% of those from “Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds” (sic) said race discrimination limited their ability to enjoy nature. I’ve included this section here because we have to acknowledge these stats to be able to address them. 

Awareness events like this one are meaningless without action. I’ll be talking some more on Thursday about what that looks like for you and me, but here I’ll be diving some more into the policy level research.

Young Adults

Young adults (18-24) appear less connected with nature, and being 19 myself, this is always the bracket I’m particularly interested in when these reports are released. This isn’t just a case of being attached to a screen, and the MHF suggest that time working/studying and a lack of others to spend time with are also a factor. Creating nature environments in schools is one way to achieve this.

Urban areas

Not everyone has a garden to spend time in. And not everyone can currently access local greenspace. That’s why it’s vital to improve accessibility and ensure that we create (and plan for) natural space that people can use and feel safe doing so.

With 70% of us predicted to live in urban areas by 2050, we must consider how we can continue to access nature with the concrete walls closing in. Ensuring we maintain green space is vital. The MHF also reported biodiversity of nature was also linked to positive benefits like better personal wellbeing. 

The report goes on to discuss the benefits of nature in children, giving them a space to vent, build confidence and develop. Again the research here shows that the access and activities that nature provides benefits all age groups.

With all these benefits, it makes sense that “green social prescribing” gets a mention. This is by asking individuals to participate in nature-based interventions which are linked to lower depression, anxiety and stress, giving mention to the NHS Forest Initiative.

Why this matters

Section 5 provides a roundup of the report, and this is always what matters most because it looks at what happens now. This 55-page report has to lead to something. This week has to mean something. And the way that happens is by creating change.

While this week has been promoting the benefits of nature, it has to do more. We need to break down the barriers that prevent people from doing so and create safe environments where people feel connected with nature but also where they want to be.

The MHF makes six policy recommendations to the UK government to make that happen. They are:

  1. Facilitate connection with nature – measuring the real efficacy of policy rather than focusing on metrics like the number of visits to nature
  2. Protecting the natural environment and restoring biodiversity – prioritise biodiversity gain in deprived areas and halt the decline of species and habitats in the UK by 2030.
  3. Improving access to nature – local authorities improving the quality and access of existing green space and looking for new opportunities to increase it. 
  4. Making green spaces safe for all – actually making sure that people feel comfortable and can enjoy nature
  5. Improving visibility and availability of nature – adding nature into existing areas and working with communities to provide a natural environment people want to be in.
  6. Develop a life-long relationship with nature – Adding nature into the curriculum to ensure that young people continue to stay connected with nature. 

How to Connect Yourself

So while that was a lot of statistics and policy decisions, remember that this week is for all of us. I know those in the mental health community who create content are often raising awareness and supporting others which is amazing to see. I wanted to roundup by sharing the Mental Health Foundation’s tips on how to get involved yourself this week.

Find nature

Makes sense, right? In order to connect with nature, you have to first venture out into it. Now, this is not possible for everyone, and some of that’s been highlighted before. But if it is for you, take some time away from #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek and go and enjoy some you time.

Connect with nature using all of your senses 

Yes, this means take your headphones out. Actually absorb what’s going on around you, the birds, the wind in the trees. I find focusing on the moment really helpful to help myself remain calm.

Get out into nature

If you can travel maybe visit somewhere you haven’t been in a while, like a park or a beach. Potentially bring someone along and reconnect with nature and each other too.

Bring nature to you

If you can’t go into nature, maybe open a window and let a bit of nature come to you. We shouldn’t pretend this is the same at all, but having some time on a different activity might be useful.

Exercise in nature

If you can get out for a cycle or run, maybe try a segment without a playlist and just be with nature for a while

Combine nature with creativity

Maybe this is working outside rather than your bedroom and just feeling a bit more connected to nature in the moment.

Protect nature

Taking care of nature around you. This could be looking after some plants or volunteering. Being able to do something positive can make you feel positive too.

What Now?

 This is a question I ask after every mental health awareness week. Mental health doesn’t just go away now we have all finished talking about it until next year. There has to be some change, some value and a benefit to the mental health community.

As a mental health advocate, this is what I fight for. While raising awareness, beating stigma, encouraging mental health conversations are important, there has to be more. There has to the professional support available that people can actually benefit from.

So tomorrow, I’ll be sharing some resources on how we can individually help create that change

Resources:

Nature: How connecting with nature benefits our mental health (Mental Health Foundation)

Nature: How connecting with nature benefits our mental health (Mental Health Foundation Scotland) 

Mental Health and Nature Policy Briefing (Mental Health Foundation)

By Jake Symons

Jake Symons is an entrepreneur and passionate mental health advocate determined to share his story to help others. Alongside writing on this blog he hosts Mental Monday: Mental Health Live a biweekly intimate and unscripted conversation about mental health.

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