News story

Connecting with nature offers a new approach to mental health care

A new study has been published by Natural England which reviews the benefits and outcomes of approaches to green care for mental ill-health.

A report published today (9 February 2016) shows that taking part in nature-based activities helps people who are suffering from mental ill-health and can contribute to a reduction in levels of anxiety, stress, and depression.

The report A review of nature-based interventions for mental health care suggests making greater use of ‘green care’ to help people suffering from mental ill-health. The new review was commissioned by Natural England from the University of Essex and Mind, the UK’s leading mental health charity.

Mental ill-health is on the rise and in England it is estimated that in any one year at least 1 in 4 people will experience a ‘significant’ mental health problem. The new report suggests that green care interventions can provide an increasingly important and cost-effective way of supporting mental health services.

The report focuses on the 3 main green care interventions that are currently helping people in England who have mental ill-health: care farming; environmental conservation; and social and therapeutic horticulture.

The report presents evidence that shows that projects in each of these areas are already making a difference to people’s lives and bring a range of positive benefits for those with existing mental ill health. These include a reduction in depression, anxiety, and stress symptoms, and an improvement in dementia-related symptoms.

The report also shows that people involved in these types of green care activities have a greatly increased level of social contact and inclusion; as well as a sense of belonging and personal achievement.

Environment Minister Rory Stewart said:

Mental health is one of the most serious and complex issues that we face in Britain today and it is great that we now have clearer scientific evidence that nature is so beneficial for our minds and our sense of self.

As part of our £900 million Countryside Stewardship scheme, we are supporting projects like care farms, providing effective recovery to those in need.

Alan Law, Natural England’s Chief Strategy and Reform Officer, said:

This report highlights how nature makes a real difference to the quality of people’s daily lives. It shows what we can do to improve people’s wellbeing, working through new partnerships and offering new services.

There is now compelling evidence to show that contact with nature and the outdoors improves physical health and mental wellbeing. Natural England is committed to find ways to help more people access the benefits that come through practical experiences in the outdoors.

Next steps

The report recommends a range of actions that would help increase awareness and access to nature-based support for mental health care in England.

Natural England has already commissioned Care Farming UK to identify practical models and case studies to increase the scale of green care services. Natural England and the University of Exeter are preparing a series of Health and Environment fact sheets to summarise the most compelling evidence on the impact of the natural environment on a range of health and wellbeing outcomes.

The report identifies the need for greater collaboration and leadership to help enhance the provision of green care services. The launch of the Green Care Coalition, involving around 25 organisations from the care farming sector to social and therapeutic horticulture organisations, will help tackle this issue.

Natural England will be working with professionals from across the health and natural environment sectors to address the issues raised in this report at a conference later this year.

Natural England is working with the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare to deliver a number of mental health fellowships so clinical leaders can help to encourage practical changes within the healthcare system.

Care farming case study

Farms provide an ideal setting for green care. Care farming is supported through educational access and is a commitment in the Natural Environment White Paper. Care Farming UK’s aim is to triple the number of care farms in England to 800 by 2020.

Calm on the Farm at Magdalen Care Farm in Dorset offers a preventative and restorative programme for people suffering mental ill-health. Hands-on tailor-made days give adults an opportunity to spend time in nature, with animals and other people providing relaxation, social inclusion, an increased sense of wellbeing and a progression route to volunteering.

Clinks Care Farm, Suffolk, pioneers Farming on Prescription through a partnership with Great Yarmouth and Waveney Clinical Commissioning Group and local GP surgeries.

Natural England and green care

Natural England is committed to increasing the number and range of people who can experience and benefit from access to the natural environment, and through the Outdoors for All programme is leading the government’s ambition that everyone should have fair access to a good quality natural environment.

Natural England’s National Nature Reserves (NNRs) host green care activities that benefit both the health and wellbeing of participants, and delivers practical conservation improvements for the environment. For example at Aston Rowant NNR, Oxfordshire Sonning Common and Wallingford Green Gyms meet monthly to undertake conservation tasks such as scrub management, fencing and livestock care.

Volunteering on Natural England’s NNRs is significant with just under 2,000 NNR based volunteers contributing over 28,000 days in 2012 to 2013, towards practical site conservation, events and species surveys. At Ainsdale Sand Dunes and Ribble Estuary NNRs ‘Woodworks’ uses the reserve to provide people with opportunities to recover from mental ill-health. The group carries out weekly work days across the 2 reserves.