What’s the point of connecting with nature?
25 October, 2023
The UK Health Alliance on Climate Change launched its ambitious policy report on Biodiversity, Nature and Health on 9 October. Many of us have experienced the personal benefits to our mental health and wellbeing of taking time out in nature, but how can we, in often stretched mental health services, share these insights with the people we work with?
In this blog, Dr Dan Harwood, a consultant in older adult psychiatry and member of the Planetary Health and Sustainability Committee, shares his own personal and professional reflections connecting with nature.
Biodiversity. It’s easy to say the word, easy to write it into Green Plans. But do we really give much thought to the species of moss, snails, springtails and waxcap fungi who are dying out and to whom the word refers? We are overwhelmed by human distress, our own and that of our patients. Should we care about a grey moth which seems to be disappearing? Should someone with distressing mental symptoms, consumed by debt, and the sequelae of trauma, be interested in a hoverfly which has lost its habitat?
And what is all this “Connecting with Nature” nonsense? Let’s face it, most people where I live don’t even respond to a smile or a “Good morning”. They can’t even be bothered to connect with a friendly neighbour, let alone a fruticose lichen.
Why do so many people not smile and refuse to say “hello”? I don’t believe that all these people are just rude, (although admittedly I live in London so quite a few of them probably are). Some are staring at their phone and do not even see me. Some have earphones in and do not hear me. Some are depressed. Some may be worried that I may want something from them. Others may see me as “not one of their tribe”. Whatever the reason, they are all in some way disconnected from other people, disconnected from where they live, and they couldn’t give a monkey’s about sawflies or algae.
Can nature help these grumpy paranoid people, (some of whom may be us!), who are constantly on the brink of mental collapse, blocking the world out with podcasts, drugs and alcohol? I think so.
For the past three years I’ve been walking regularly down a local nature trail. It runs along a disused railway, is surrounded by houses, and filled with ivy and nettles. The “meadow area” has been flattened by children playing and the people whose gardens back onto it throw rubbish over their fences. In short, it’s no Knepp Estate. Yet I’ve identified over 400 species of plant, animals and fungi who live there. Yes, OK, I know some amateur naturalists have found thousands of species in their back gardens in Peckham. Good for them. This isn’t a competition. I have learned to identify (some) grasses and hoverflies, I know which insect feeds on which plant and why certain plants grow where they do, and I have started to uncover the folklore and deep history related to the wild organisms who live here. Learning about them has inspired me to want to protect them, and it has given me a sense of belonging to the community of living things where I live. Meeting wildlife, outdoors, has made me feel better, and made me respect and love living things.
It’s also made me keen to share my knowledge. I’ve led guided walks. People are amazed to know how much life there is on the trail. After I had led one walk, a young woman said to me, “Before today I would have walked down here and just seen a lot of green stuff, but now I know all these plants are all different”. Nature has helped me, a natural introvert, connect with other people too.
I understand nature isn’t for everyone. Even so I think many of our service users might be helped as I was. Those people who find human relationships hard, who cannot even smile at a passer-by. If they are supported to find out about nature near them, this might be a “way in” to a deeper relationship with their local world and perhaps even to relationships with others.
How might this happen? I recently led a couple of nature walks for people with long term mental health problems. One of the first things the group asked me was “Can you tell us what these all trees are?” So, on the next walk we spent two hours studying leaves and fruits and bark and working out what they were. People talked to each other, and laughed, and some just looked and listened quietly. Some were connecting with nature, some with other people and some with both.
More ambitiously, could we start to develop a culture within our practice that works with the natural world to heal our service users, and at the same time, protects and restores the natural world? Why not? And please let’s not make it complicated. We really haven’t time for that. You do not need a five-day training course to go for a walk in the park looking for flowers with your team after work, or with a group of carers from a local care home, or with people who are recovering from mental illness.
You and your service users can decide what to do. Are you going to start a monthly Bumblebee Conservation Trust Bee Walk survey around your hospital grounds, run by service users? Support the planting of a drought-tolerant wildlife garden with plants loved by pollinating insects in that tatty courtyard of the community team base? Or join the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) Garden Birdwatch scheme and record all the birds you can see in the ward garden?
Why not start now? Go outside and look at the pavement. What’s growing in the cracks, and on the walls? What’s that fluffy yellow bee buzzing around the ivy? Do you know their names? If not, make a note, take a picture, or draw a sketch. Look them up in a book, or the internet. Learn a few things about them. And then arrange a little walk with a few of your team at lunchtime and show them what you’ve found. You may be surprised where it will lead…
Dr Dan Harwood
Croydon Memory Service
Read more of Dr Harwood’s Nature Trails
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