A reflection on nature for mental health week with Dr Dearbhail Lewis
12 May, 2021
A Pleasure in the Pathless Woods
‘There is a pleasure in the pathless woods.
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
< I love not man the less, but Nature more.’
(Lord Byron, 1788-1824)
The theme for this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, 10-16 May, is nature. The Mental Health Foundation is encouraging people to connect with nature, and emphasising the benefits this can have for all of us: Mental Health Awareness Week 2021
This is a concept I can whole-heartedly endorse. I’ve always been a little bit of a nature nerd. I inherited my love for nature from my Dad, who taught me the names of all the garden birds visiting our feeders at home. Although my kids never got to meet him, they feel a connection to my Dad every time they watch the many visitors that call to our feeding stations dotted round the house. My Dad was also a school teacher, and I recall our class sitting enthralled as he read books by local author Tom McCaughren which detailed the adventures of a skulk of foxes. I thought of my Dad, and of Tom McCaughren’s visit to our primary school, when I caught sight of a vixen heading out to hunt for her cubs early one evening last week.
For me, nature is not just about connection to childhood, and to family, but a connection to something bigger; a signal that life carries on, and with that comes a message of hope.
During my teenage/early adult years, I didn’t make the same time for nature that I did in childhood.
But this is, thankfully, something that has changed in more recent years. A move to the country has been helpful in this regard, but I have also become much more cognizant of nature’s resilience in urban environments.
At the height of the first COVID-19 peak last Spring, I took time to notice birds building nests, making preparation for new life. I could tell you where blue tits nested on the Mater car park site — the one benefit of car parking queues! — and could show you where greenfinches fledged right beside the Royal Jubilee Maternity hospital. Seeing that cycle of life continue this year, spotting birds with beakfuls of nesting materials, never fails to raise a smile. And I have to say that I found it hard to contain my excitement when I discovered that our newly established pond (read glorified puddle) was host to frogspawn. I’m keeping a regular check on the tadpoles; this mindful pond-gazing provides a little respite of calm every time. And I’m hoping to have an army of froglets soon!
But you don’t just have to take my word for it; there’s a wealth of research pointing to the fact that spending time in nature is good for our Mental Health. In a paper published in nature in 2019, White et al. demonstrated that ‘the likelihood of reporting good health or well-being became significantly greater contact with nature. The authors suggest that further research could lead to evidence-based recommendations about the time spent in natural settings, similar to evidence-based recommendations about maintaining our physical health. Wouldn’t it be great if we, as psychiatrists, could be early adopters here?
In BJPsych (2017), Dan Bloomfield — now there’s a fine example of nominative determinsim! — refers to a scheme in South West England, A Dose of Nature, which has led the way in this area. Forty-eight patients completed a 10-12 week programme of sessions, focusing on time spent outside, in areas of natural beauty, with high biodiversity.
The average increase in self-reported well-being was 69%, with at least two patients reducing, or expecting to reduce, prescribed medications. Participants also reported improvements in their social skills, and self-confidence.
Other benefits were the accumulation of new skills as well as knowledge, and the formation of, new friendships.
The article includes a list of key factors that should be considered for successful nature-based interventions. Armed with this knowledge, what are we waiting for?
As I’ve mentioned, nature is all around us; we just need to open our eyes and ears. For improving nature contentedness, here are my top tips:
- Make a little time to do something for nature every day. The Wildlife Trust’s 30 Days Wild campaign, which runs in June every year, is the perfect opportunity for this.
- Feed the birds. You don’t have to buy fancy feeders; recycle some plastic and use this National Trust advice on how to make a recycled bird feeder. The more different types of food you put out, the more species you’ll attract; 'if you build it, they will come'!
- Make time at the beginning of your working day to listen or watch nature. #DawnChorusDay was earlier this month; you can listen here . Of course, if you do get out of bed to listen (it’s the perfect time of year to do so), you’ll be amazed that we manage to sleep through it every day!
- Make time at the end of your day to watch or listen to nature. As well as the dusk chorus, you might see bats clearing hundreds of midges - Bat Conservation Trust - or if you’re really lucky, spot an owl as it begins to get dark. And of course, badgers and foxes are nocturnal and thrive in both urban and rural environments.
- Give something back – go on a litter pick. Litter is a massive problem when it finds its way to the sea but also causes huge problems for our native wildlife on land. Please see Ulster Wildlife's pick up litter campaign. Be prepared; a litter picker can be purchased very cheaply online or in hardware shops.
In addition to these suggestions, Mind also have loads of suggestions. These ideas may be useful for our patients, and I’m certainly going to employ some of them myself, particularly the idea of planting ‘helpful seeds’!
Our thanks to Dearbhail for a wonderful insight into the glory that surrounds us. Our Autumn/Winter conference in 2021 will have nature as its theme - so look out for more details in due course.