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Nature and Mental Health: How we could lead the way to a greener and healthier future

Posted by Devon Partnership Trust in Mental health, News, Recovery and wellbeing on 13th May, 2021

William Secretan is a principal psychotherapist within the Torbay Psychology and Psychological Therapies Service. He is an ecopsychologist with a background in the arts therapies, psychodrama and analytical psychology and holds a Fellowship with the Royal Society of Arts. He has been an environmental activist for many years, published research on nature-based therapies and lectured internationally on ecopsychology. William has written an interesting and informative piece about why nature, the theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, is so important to mental health. William says:

"The theme this year is ‘Nature’, which could not feel more relevant during this time of crisis, when so many of us have found refuge and solace in our local, natural environments. Whether it has been taking walks along Devon’s incredible coastline, getting out onto the dramatic moorlands, or simply accessing our local parks, playing fields and other ‘Green and Blue Spaces’ – the outdoors has been a lifeline for all of us who could access it. Now, perhaps more than ever, we are beginning to recognise what a huge impact accessing our beautiful landscapes and wild places has on us, and just how detrimental it can be to feel cut off from nature. In this context, the benefits for both mental and physical health have become obvious, and ideas like ‘nature connection’ for wellbeing don’t seem as fringe or alternative as they once might have.

"We are beginning to understand that access to outdoor spaces is inherently therapeutic and there is a growing body of evidence that supports this hypothesis and demonstrates the dramatic impact that things like time spent walking in woodlands or growing food can have on mental health outcomes. Furthermore, the developing research around new articulations of psychotherapy, that not only support access to outdoor spaces but also facilitate a relational experience with nature, are demonstrating that nature-based therapies can create long-lasting psychological changes. As a person’s relationship with nature develops and they begin to sense themselves as somehow entwined with nature, an entirely new conception of self can begin to emerge. Individuals come to feel ‘part of’, rather than ‘separate to’, the world that they find themselves in. The impact that a relationship with nature can have on the fundamental existential concerns of death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness, which underpin so much of mental distress, are enormous.

"With that in mind, I invite you, the reader, to think back to some of the natural places that you have found sanctuary in over this last year. Imagine yourself back in that bluebell woodland or in that sunny flowering garden. Picture yourself on that beach with lapping waves or standing on the peak of that tor surrounded by the majesty of the moor. Whatever green or blue spaces your imagination takes you to, I would ask you to consider the following questions: firstly, what does this place give you and how does it make you feel? Secondly, what would it mean if you couldn’t access places like this? And finally, how would you feel if this place was under serious threat of destruction?

"On Wednesday 5 May 2021 the Royal College of Psychiatrists declared a climate and ecological emergency, publishing research which suggests that four-fifths (84%) of the UK public think that within a decade the climate and ecological emergencies will affect mental health at least as much as unemployment (83%) and COVID-19 (84%). The president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, our very own Dr. Adrian James, anounced that “the disruption to life posed by the climate and ecological emergencies presents an unprecedented threat to our health in the UK and worldwide”. He goes on to say that:

"The climate and ecological emergency is a mental health emergency. Our mental health is entwined with the health of our natural world. We have no choice but to join the voices of those who are calling for urgent action and declare a climate and ecological emergency to avert a health and mental health catastrophe."

"As one of the country’s leading mental health and learning disabilities organisations we have a responsibility to take a leading role in responding to the climate and ecological crisis. We are already seeing the impact that climate change is having on mental health in this country, as evidenced by research conducted around the psychological effects of events such as flooding, droughts, and soaring temperatures. These will be big challenges and as time goes on, and the climate emergency unfolds, we may face even greater challenges than those that have been seen during COVID-19. This is a daunting prospect, but I would like to add that this crisis also presents us with some incredibly exciting opportunities.

"We live and work in one of the most beautiful counties in the UK and, as such, we have access to some incredible environments. In 2019/20 the Psychology and Psychological Therapies team in South Devon conducted their first six-month pilot study into a new nature-based group psychotherapy, working with our patients in a beautiful woodland environment on the Dartington Estate. I led this pilot with my colleague Becky, a clinical psychologist, and it has been an enormous success. While our sample group was small, the outcomes were extremely encouraging, and we are now about to begin a second year-long pilot with a larger group of patients.

"Whilst our pilot ecotherapy group is a small example of what can be done to support patients in accessing and building a relationship with nature, we believe it could also be the beginning of so much more. It is our hope that Devon Partnership NHS Trust could become a leading player, both nationally and internationally, in developing research, theory and practice into the emerging fields of ecopsychology and ecotherapy. We have a unique opportunity to be pioneers in what may come to be seen as whole new paradigm within our understanding of how human psychology and health exists within a larger ecosystem.

"This Mental Health Awareness Week, I invite you to take some time out to be in your favourite natural places. Breathe in the astounding land and seascapes that surround you in this most magnificent of counties and imagine what it could mean to our patients, our staff and our ecosystems if accessing, protecting, nurturing, and caring for our natural environments became an integral part of what an organisation like ours does.