New sites will test how connecting with nature can improve mental health

Seven sites will receive a share of over £5.5m to research how nature can be used to improve mental health and wellbeing

It is widely proven that access to, and views of, landscape and outdoor space can have a very-positive impact on mental wellbeing

Seven sites which will test the ways in which connecting people with nature can improve mental wellbeing have been awarded a share of a £5.77m moneypot, announced by Environment Minister, Rebecca Pow.

The new test-and-learn sites, which are based across England, will focus on communities hardest hit by Coronavirus, covering those living in deprived areas, people with mental health conditions, and BAME communities.

Since the coronavirus pandemic, when many people have experienced distress, loneliness or anxiety, there has been an increased public awareness of the benefits of regular access to green spaces.

And studies have shown that this has the potential to improve mental health and wellbeing.

A much-needed increase the use of green social prescribing services will improve the nation’s mental health, reduce demand on our health system, and – crucially – reduce the stark inequalities in access to nature, which have been bought into sharp focus during the pandemic

The sites announced by the Government will each explore and bring together opportunities for communities to get involved in their natural environment.

This could include activities such as walking, cycling, community gardening and food-growing projects, and practical conservation tasks such as tree planting.

For people who need help to get involved, this could also include supported visits to local green spaces, waterways and the coast, and other outdoor activities to reduce isolation and loneliness.

The successful projects are:

  • Humber Coast and Vale Health and Care Partnership
  • South Yorkshire and Bassetlaw Integrated Care System
  • Nottingham and Nottinghamshire Integrated Care System
  • Joined-Up Care Derbyshire Sustainability and Transformation Partnership
  • Greater Manchester Health & Social Care Partnership
  • Surrey Heartlands Health and Care Partnership
  • Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire Sustainability and Transformation Partnership

The announcement builds on the fund announced in July by Environment Secretary, George Eustice, supported by a cross-governmental partnership of Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Department of Health and Social Care, Natural England, NHS England, Public Health England, and Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, and two new partners: Sport England and the National Academy for Social Prescribing (NASP).

And a further £1.5m has been confirmed, boosting the total to £5.77m and supporting more sites across the country.

This will support the Green Social Prescribing programme, which is the practice of supporting patients to engage in nature-based activities, and plays an important role in the nation’s recovery.

If successful, the test and learn sites could be rolled out across the country.

Pow said: “Many of us have seen first-hand during this difficult time the benefit that connecting with nature can have on our health and mental wellbeing and I am delighted to announce the first sites for this inspiring scheme which will improve people’s access to, and engagement with, nature and green spaces.

“As we build back better and greener from the pandemic, we are looking forward to working closely with these sites to deliver an enhanced green social prescribing offer which will deliver real benefits for individuals across the country.”

Evidence from Natural England shows that almost half the population say that they are spending more time outside than before the pandemic, while the majority of adults surveyed by Forest Research agreed that their level of happiness when in nature has increased.

Nature-based activities can improve people’s physical and mental wellbeing, which is especially important for those communities and groups which have been hit hardest by the pandemic

However, the outbreak has also exacerbated health inequalities and levels of mental ill health while highlighting the inequalities of access to green spaces.

Chief Executive of Natural England, Marian Spain, said: “For many years we’ve been working closely with our health professional colleagues to make sure we can create a healthy society, which is even more important as part of a green recovery to help everybody cope with the long-term impacts of the restrictions on day-to-day life necessitated by the Coronavirus.

“I’m delighted that Natural England has been able to shape this innovative partnership to consolidate green social prescribing as a core part of the Government’s wider ambitions for healthcare and health prevention within the NHS.

“A much-needed increase the use of green social prescribing services will improve the nation’s mental health, reduce demand on our health system, and – crucially – reduce the stark inequalities in access to nature, which have been bought into sharp focus during the pandemic.”

The projects will be managed by NHS England and NHS Improvement with support from Defra, Department of Health and Social Care, Natural England, Public Health England, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, NASP, and Sport England.

Health Minister, Jo Churchill, said: “The response to our call for projects has been impressive and these pilots signal the exciting next stage of green social prescribing.

“Nature-based activities can improve people’s physical and mental wellbeing, which is especially important for those communities and groups which have been hit hardest by the pandemic.

“I look forward to seeing how these innovative schemes help tackle health inequalities, and improve outcomes for both those taking part and the environment.”

The benefits of access to landscape in health and care settings are, it’s fair to say, undisputable now

The seven successful test-and-learn sites will run for over two years and are being taken forward as part of the Treasury’s £200m Shared Outcomes Fund, which pilots innovative ways of working that will improve collaboration on priority policy areas that sit across, and are delivered by, multiple public sector organisations to improve outcomes and deliver better value for citizens.

Within the health sector, and particularly within mental health services, it has long been recognised that access too, and views of, outdoor spaces can have a very-positive impact on recovery and wellbeing.

Research by Roger Ulrich et al in the late 1980s revealed that just 5-7 minutes in nature, or viewing nature, can reduce physiological indicators of stress, improve mood, and aid healing.

For healthcare providers this means a potential reduction in medication, fewer violent episodes, a reduction in overall anxiety, and faster recovery; all of which could help to save millions of pounds.

And, in 2016, The King’s Fund health think tank published Gardens and Health: Implications for Policy and Practice. It found that increasing people’s exposure to, and use of, green spaces was linked to long-term reductions in overall reported health problems, reduced levels of obesity, and higher self-rated mental health.

Chris Hull of JPS Landscape Design, which has worked on landscaping projects at Alderney Hospital in Poole, the Royal Bournemouth Hospital, and Evesham Community Hospital in Worcestershire, comments: “The benefits of access to landscape in health and care settings are, it’s fair to say, undisputable now.

“Regardless of the scale of the green space, simply being able to watch things grow triggers our inherent need to nurture.”

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