10 May 2021
In episode one we will be talking to Michelle who lived with anxiety and depression for over two decades and recently got involved with a Wildlife Trust in Lancashire called MyPlace.
MyPlace helps to empower individuals and local communities to connect with their environments and learn new skills. We discuss ecotherapy, peer to peer support and the joys of dog walking.
Find out more about how the College is taking action on environmental issues by viewing our new position statement on Sustainability.
Ella Marchant: Hello, and welcome to the Royal College of Psychiatrists' podcast with me, Ella Marchant. You're listening to the Climate Change Podcast miniseries which we are bringing to you alongside the College's position statement on sustainability.
Our mental health is deeply connected to the health of our natural world, and we will be exploring this connection across three short podcast episodes. In episode 1, we will be talking to Michelle. Michelle lived with anxiety and depression for over two decades and the pandemic caused her to feel increasingly lonely and isolated. Michelle started to get involved with the Wildlife Trust in Lancashire called Myplace and has noticed a significant lift in her mood from the peer-to-peer support and the greater awareness that comes from engaging with one's environment.
We will also be speaking to a representative from Myplace. Since 2015, Myplace has worked with adults and young people to empower individuals and their local communities, to connect with their environments and learn new skills, build resilience, meet like-minded people and improve their physical and mental well-being. First, we spoke to Michelle who tells us about her mental health history and the kind of cycles she would experience.
Michelle: I've lived with mental health issues for about, I'd say 25 years. I have lived with depression and anxiety. It tended to be in cycles. I'd be okay for a few months and then I'd be low for a few months. It's quite difficult for me to say what stood out for me because it's all a bit of a blur really. Certainly, the main thing that stood out for me this time last year actually, was because I wasn't sleeping, I was getting up at ridiculous times; four or five o'clock and going for walks. Even though I was incredibly low and incredibly anxious, it was beautiful seeing the wildlife at that time, there was no one else about and I was seeing owls and deer and stuff like that. I would say, although I was in a very dark place, that stood out the most for me.
Ella: That sounds like a Disney film with lots of animals coming out while you just walk through Was there a time in your mental health history, a turning point or something like that?
Michelle: Yes, certainly. Again, this time last year, I was incredibly low. I was in the darkest place I'd ever been. I was having suicidal thoughts. I was paranoid. I completely isolated myself even to the point, isolating myself from my family that I live with because obviously with the pandemic, I felt they were going through their own issues. I didn't want to burden them with how I was feeling. It was an incredibly low point with very dark thoughts. I would call that my rock bottom, definitely.
Ella: Thank you so much for sharing that. In general, how has the last year been for you considering that we've been in and out of three different lockdowns?
Michelle: It's been tough but in a way, it's been positive because I discovered Myplace and discovered my love of nature. It is quite difficult for anyone when you're isolating yourself but for me, it felt 10 times worse than it ever had done because I felt there was no one to turn to that I could speak to about how I was feeling.
Ella: When and how did things start to change?
Michelle: It definitely was when I discovered Myplace. I was already going on the early morning walks and discovered the love of nature. I saw an advert for a taster session for Myplace and decided to give it a go. At the time it was a Zoom session because of the restrictions. All of a sudden, I found myself, in the Zoom session, with like-minded people that felt the same as I did. That definitely felt reassuring that I wasn't alone and things started to turn around from there.
Ella: Were you getting any kind of support from friends or family?
Michelle: I did have support from my family and from my friends, but I was holding back because I was aware that they were dealing with their own anxieties and their own stresses. I just didn't want to burden them. Also, I think it's quite hard for someone that hasn't lived with depression or anxiety to fully understand. With the best intention, it is quite easy to say, "Oh, just go for a walk," or, "It'll be fine." When you live with anxiety and depression it's very difficult to just go for a walk or believe it'll be fine because you're constantly thinking that the worse is going to happen.
Ella: It's also a bit like when you're crying and someone says, "Don't cry," and you're thinking, "That's not really a solution." You went into it a little bit. Could you describe how being in nature has helped you and how have you been able to connect with others through the Myplace project?
Michelle: Well, nature has helped me. I always remember one day, it was again on my early morning walks, seeing an owl and I'd never seen her a real owl in real life. I just thought, "No matter what's going on, nature's always there and nature is always beautiful." It was a very powerful moment and it really made me more aware. When I joined Myplace, we started learning about different things on each session and it gave me an excuse or gave me more of an excuse to actually go out and look for the things that we were learning on the session and really exploring and being in the moment and just appreciating what's out there.
It's given me a chance to meet people virtually and in real life that understand what we're going through. Each session we have a brief check-in, how everyone's feeling. It's been an eye-opener and that other people are feeling exactly the same as me, and that they understand what we're going through. It's given me a chance to talk through those with people that understand.
Ella: Yes, it's very important to find people that have been through or are going through a similar thing to you.
Michelle: Yes, definitely.
Ella: What do you think a project like Myplace does for people with mental health needs?
Michelle: It gives you something to focus on other than how you're feeling. Like I said before, it gives you a chance to connect with people that do understand so you're not feeling isolated or that what you're feeling is wrong or weird, if you like. People do feel the same way and people do understand. It gives you a reason to get out and about and explore what's going on in nature, connect with nature, and connect with other people. Certainly, the group that I'm in now, we've met up for walks outside of Myplace and have made friends that I think will be friends for a long time. It's the social aspect as well as the nature aspect.
Ella: Absolutely. Now we're going to speak to Jenny from Myplace. Hi, Jenny, how are you?
Jenny: Hello. I'm fine, thank you, yes. Thank you very much.
Ella: How long have you been working with Myplace?
Jenny: Four years, started in 2017.
Ella: Would you mind talking us through the kind of things that Myplace does?
Jenny: Yes, that's fine. Ecotherapy is all about connecting people to the wider environment, to nature, wildlife. We thoroughly believe that being outside is incredibly beneficial to people's mental health and well-being and there's lots of studies to prove that as well now. The benefit of our projects compared to medication and other forms of mental health interventions is actually the lack of waiting lists, and the fact that we're not a clinical offer.
People can access us almost straight away from when they start to feel not great, which is a bonus because a lot of obviously other interventions do have waiting lists that are quite hefty sometimes. Also, the fact that we use the natural world to be the medicine. Obviously, there's nothing they have to take or do or there's no side effects that are negative really. I think that's something that people have said to us that is a bonus to their mental health improvement.
Our well-being sessions are weekly sessions, where people can come along and take part in activities to help their local environment and their local wildlife. Sessions are tailored to meet the group's needs but also to meet the local environment's needs. We will be working alongside our colleagues in the Wildlife Trust to identify projects that might need to be done or campaigns that we're working on at the time and trying to educate our participants and encourage them to get involved in the wider work of the trust, which is part of ecotherapy.
We follow the Five Ways to Wellbeing. Which are five things that if you do them every day, they are proven to improve your well-being. The five ways, if you come along to a Myplace session, you will just get them without even trying. It's connect, be active, take notice, keep learning, and give. The give element is really interesting because we feel that being part of a session and being part of our Myplace project enables people to have a chance to give something back to nature, to each other, and to themselves, in terms of they've maybe been feeling incredibly low, incredibly isolated, incredibly worthless for however long, and when they come to Myplace, they can actually instantly be part of a bigger thing that will hopefully help them feel like they have a sense of place and a sense of identity which then helps with improving their well-being.
Our sessions are really relaxed. We try to make them as accessible as possible for all sorts of different people and their different needs. As Michelle has said, they bring together like-minded people and we have a lovely time. We spend a lot of time chatting and helping people share how they're feeling, as well as getting stuck in and doing some practical work, which gets your heart rate up and helps your physical well-being as well as your mental health.
You can refer through our website, it's lancashirewildlifetrust/myplace. You'll find on there, loads of information and the referral form. We have activities running across Lancashire and Greater Manchester and online as well. We're able to offer sessions for everybody. We work with all ages, so 11-up, all the way up. We also have a new service using Minecraft to help young people engage with their environment and hopefully encouraging them to get outside once their confidence has grown in the Minecraft world.
Back in April 2020, our manager asked us to go fully online because we couldn't run our outside sessions, which was a bit of a shock to the system, to be honest, for a group of staff that were very used to being outside and playing in the woods, but we all managed to embrace it. It actually worked out really well. We used Zoom and we still had small groups of people in the room, we didn't have large numbers or anything. We, each session, focused on a different aspect of the environment or nature. We were able to really help people learn about the environment and also learn about campaigns that were running and how they could get involved with becoming advocates for the environment and nature which was actually really refreshing and exciting.
People were able to share how they were doing stuff in their own gardens and their own streets to improve nature or to learn about nature. We found that, in many, many ways, people got to know each other better online than they would do outside. There was almost nowhere to go, nowhere to hide. When you're outside, you can hide behind chopping a tree down or digging a hole or something. Sometimes you don't always have to speak to people, but when you're online, people found they wanted to talk to each other and they wanted to get to know each other. Obviously, we were all going through a collective thing as well, which meant there was always something to refer to.
They were so successful. We did manage to go back outside last year in September for some of the sessions, but not all of the sessions were able to return. Some of the guys have only just gone back out this month. We've also continued our online offer because we realised that there is a place for it. Some people can't get to some of our practical sessions if they live further away, some people can't get there because of transport issues or accessibility issues. Some people are really nervous about going outside.
I've got the lady that was doing my practical session and she's really struggling with pain at the moment. We've offered her the chance to go online for a few weeks just to make sure that she's still staying connected with other people and nature. Then hopefully when she's feeling better, she might be able to come back outside and get those benefits too. It has been really positive ironically, despite the fact that it's been a big, big change.
Ella: That sounds incredible and amazing that you're still reaching out to this woman. Could you speak to us a little bit about conservation and how to preserve these areas that you use?
Jenny: More than ever, nature and the environment are in danger, is at risk and human beings are to blame, and we need to take back control of that, we need to change that by each doing our little bit. The sessions that we run, for example, we do a lot-- this year at Brockholes Nature Reserve in Preston, over the winter, they were felling a lot of Ash trees in the reserve because the Ash trees had a fungus infection called Ash dieback. They had to do a lot of felling to stop the spread. We were helping with the processing of that wood to make sure that the woods were suitable to be used by the public and by other bits of nature. We were using the processed wood to put into hedges. Then we were also planting new trees and trying to increase the biodiversity into those woods that had the Ash trees come out.
Little ways of making sure that we are supporting conservation efforts really. Throughout the year, we were finding ways to do that. In all of our sites, we'll plant wildflowers, we'll remove invasive species. We'll take trees down if they're dangerous or damaged, or the rest of the site needs a bit of space. We can create ponds and wetlands, habitat homes. We do lots of habitat homes, so bird boxes and bug hotels, that kind of thing. Just finding ways for nature to thrive in our local greenspaces. Because we work in communities, we do a lot of work in community gardens or parks, and on urban nature reserves.
Actually, we're trying to hopefully, helping nature's recovery by creating this network, these wildlife corridors between our urban spaces. Because we're actually working in those urban spaces with people from that community, hopefully, we can help other people in that community also preserve and conserve that area.
Ella: Thank you so much, Jenny. That's been amazing to speak with you. Just coming back to you, Michelle, how are things for you now? Because I know that you're back at work.
Michelle: Things are really good actually. Like you said, I've gone back to work. I'm also volunteering with Myplace now, so that's just fantastic. I can start giving back and helping people that are in a similar situation that I was. I'm still engaging with nature, going on my long walks with my dog. I'm even back horseriding, which I never thought I will go back to. I'm in a really good place.
Ella: That's so nice to hear. It's so good that you've got dogs as well because that gives routine. I think looking after dogs just makes you feel so much better.
Michelle: Yes, definitely. I don't know where I'd be without my dogs, they give me something to focus on. At the lowest point, I had to get out and go for a walk because of them. They're my rocks, bless them.
Ella: Michelle, in the past, have doctors ever prescribed medication for you?
Michelle: Yes, I've been on antidepressants for about 25 years now; various different types.
Ella: How would you compare taking medication to the time that you've had at Myplace?
Michelle: I think the two complement each other. Without Myplace, I'd find I would very slowly get back to a more stable point, but I was never truly confident and happy like I am at the moment. I didn't feel fulfilled if that makes sense. Being on medication and attending Myplace, I feel like a completely different person. I think the two complement each other, definitely.
Ella: Thank you to all of our speakers today for their contribution to the Climate Change Podcast miniseries. If you'd like to read our position statement on sustainability, please go to our website.