‘There is something to be wondered at in all of Nature’ – Aristotle
Mental Health Awareness Week happens every year. It has done for 21 years. One of the biggest awareness events in the UK, Mental Health Awareness Week was designed to open up those conversations about mental health, those conversations that have long felt as though they are off the table.
Taking place from 10-16 May this year, the theme for 2021 is ‘Nature’. Mark Rowland, the Mental Health Foundation’s Chief Executive explains why: “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
For most of our recorded history, there wasn’t just a link between mankind and nature, we lived as a part of it, with only the last five generations living and working in a context that is so far removed from the natural world. So intrinsically linked are we, that nature is central to our psychological and emotional health. It is almost impossible to realise good mental health without a greater connection to the natural world.
As recently as the 1960s, a study in the US found that patients who were treated in hospitals with a view of nature – just a view, not being emerged in nature itself – recovered faster. Only since then has science started to unpack the extraordinary health benefits connected with our link to nature.
The benefits of nature for our mental health are powerful. It has an ability to not only bring consolation in times of stress, but also increase our creativity, empathy, and a sense of wonder. And, as it turns out, it is not just being in nature but how we open ourselves up and interact with nature that counts. Even small doses and interactions with nature can reduce feelings of social isolation and be effective in protecting our mental health and preventing distress. Nature is without a doubt our great untapped resource for a mentally healthy future.
Despite this, and the rise in the number of us taking to two feet to explore the great outside during lockdown, many are still 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. Nature is not a luxury, but a resource, and one all of us can and should enjoy.
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.
So, what can you 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. So, The Mental Health Foundation wants 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 – along with the MHF – invite you to #ConnectWithNature and share what this means for you. So, 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