The gift of Spring: reconnect to nature to restore your wellbeing.
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By Dave Bell, Natural England’s Principal Adviser for Health and the environment
Stress Awareness Month has been held every April since 1992 to raise awareness of the causes and cures for our modern-day stress epidemic. It is the time when we have an opportunity for an open conversation on the impact of stress.
Nature and Health
When it comes to stress everyone is different; people are triggered by different factors and soothed by different activities. Chronic stress can wreak havoc on your mind and body. Taking steps to manage stress is an essential form of self-care. At Natural England, we understand the role that connecting people with nature can play to support happy and healthy people in thriving, natural settings. As we move into spring, I’d encourage everyone to take some time connecting with nature as part of a new self-care routine.
Our evidence shows that there is a positive relationship between nature and physical health for our immune system, physical activity, cardiovascular health and weight. And living near natural environments is also associated with lower stress and faster recovery from mental health issues.
The positive impact of nature is also recognised by the health sector. Public Health England’s 2020 publication ‘Improving access to greenspace’ recommends that Local Authorities should consider local green (and blue) space to be critical assets for maintaining and supporting health and wellbeing in local communities.
But access to nature is not available to all
We know from our People and Nature survey that people from minority ethnic communities, disabled people, and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds connect less with nature, and that this inequality in access is becoming worse.
Our Green Infrastructure Standards Mapping found that around a third of us don’t live within 15 minutes of a natural green space and some of the most disadvantaged areas have little or no access to green space within walking distance from home.
The Government’s new Environmental Improvement Plan recognises this challenge and sets the goal of ensuring that every person is no more than 15 mins walk from green space. A cross-government and cross-sector approach is needed to deliver on this commitment and we are working hard to make this happen. For instance, the environment in and around where we work can provide a space for us to engage with nature and help to address some of the inequalities in access to nature. We have provided practical guidance on how to plan and design good green infrastructure as part of the Natural England Green Infrastructure Planning and Design Guide.
Green Social Prescribing
Green Social Prescribing (GSP) is the practice of supporting people to engage with nature-based interventions and activities to improve their health and wellbeing. It is playing a growing part in the offer to support people’s health and wellbeing. Green Social Prescribing for mental health can deliver positive health outcomes, is a positive return on investment and help reduce health inequalities.
One GP we are working with commented: “Often people will come to us with isolation or loneliness and actually getting them out into greener spaces, interacting with other people is all they need to lift them enough to enable them to function at the level that is possible for them again.”
Green Mondays, Roots4Life’s Green Social Prescribing project in Greenwich, London is an excellent example of the Green Social Prescribing offer. Funded by Natural England, Green Mondays’ group gardening, conservation and ecotherapy activities supports local residents struggling with social isolation, ill health, anxiety or depression. Watch this uplifting film to find out more. Green Social Prescribing Roots4Life: Green Mondays - YouTube
Green Social Prescribing is now embedded within the NHS long term plan and in 2020, the government committed £5.77m to prevent and tackling mental ill health through green social prescribing. The pilots are due to report in the next few months and we look forward to building on their learning.
Green Social Prescribing can be a key tool to help prevent and manage poor mental health. Equally, it can offer a route back into employment and training with many examples of participants developing skills, confidence and experience to work in the environment sector.
Help to Grow Green Social Prescribing
There are many Green Social Prescribing activities and programmes running across the country such as the RSPB Nature Prescriptions programme that featured in CJS in March this year.
If you’re interested in getting involved in Green Social Prescribing The National Academy for Social Prescribing was established in October 2019 to ensure social prescribing thrives across the whole country. Their Regional Thriving Communities Networks help to connect local groups, health systems and NHS Link Workers to help people to live the best life they can through social prescribing. You can contact their regional teams via their website here: National Academy for Social Prescribing Thriving Communities Regions | NASP (socialprescribingacademy.org.uk)
Nature Connection offers a helping hand
Slowing down and taking time to connect with nature is vital for our personal wellbeing. But how we create that connection is becoming more and more important to understand. Natural England supported the development of the University of Derby’s, Nature Connection Handbook, an excellent resource aimed at increasing people’s connection with nature for multiple benefits, including improved mental wellbeing: bit.ly/NatureConnectionHandbook.
As substantial evidence testifies, the healing power of nature plays a vital role in supporting our health and wellbeing. Learning coping strategies to manage chronic stress is an essential skillset, which not only helps restore mental and physical health but can also improve our quality of life, and the quality of our relationships.
Spring is a perfect time to connect (or re-connect) with nature for your own wellbeing. After you’ve taken some time connecting with nature, please feel free to share any thoughts on the article or ask me any questions on how Natural England is working to create thriving nature for people and the planet: Dave.Bell@naturalengland.org.uk
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