By opening people’s eyes to nature and the great outdoors, lockdown’s new perspective throws up questions about how and why people respond to nature so strongly and why it can have such a positive impact on our mental health. So it is no wonder that the theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week (10-16 May) is Connect With Nature.
For there’s more to people’s new motivation to spend time outdoors than simply exercising or escaping their own four walls for a while. Nature is known to calm us, to reduce stress hormones and to slow heart rates. Nature moves at such a different pace, following a set cycle, patterns of growth, gradual change as the year moves on. So it can calm us by slowing us down, as a counterbalance to the pressured pace of life, and can instil in us patience and new priorities.
Mental Health Awareness Week is run each year by the Mental Health Foundation, and this year the Foundation has two goals for its Nature theme. One is promoting new ways of connecting with nature. The other? Lobbying politicians and other authorities to consider access to nature not just an environmental issue but also an issue of mental health and social justice.
This set me thinking about access. In the UK we’ve come a long way from the mass trespasses of the 1930s, held by citydwellers opposed to landowners’ refusal to allow access to their moors. Their actions led to an opening up of the countryside and the creation of far more footpaths and bridleways. But other, more insidious barriers have emerged. Urbanisation is one, as urban sprawl creeps on, sometimes even over greenbelt. Then there’s crime, with many urban green spaces in particular unsafe. With little public transport in rural areas, getting to the countryside is difficult for non-drivers. Accessing nature can be impossible for disabled people. Age also limits people’s freedom to experience nature for themselves. Not all care homes have accessible gardens, but even in those which do many residents rarely or never go outside, particularly those who have dementia.
One solution is for people to enjoy nature virtually. The Mental Health Foundation found that webcam live streams of wildlife and wild places proved very popular during lockdowns. I’ve just heard that Swansea Botanic Garden has started running virtual walks. And technology could be a way to engage more younger people with nature to improve their mental health too.
So the virtual has a great part to play, but experiencing nature directly is irreplaceable. The surge of enthusiasm for nature must partly be a reaction to the virtual, to all the time people have to spend online. At some point nature needs to become real and actual, even if only in simple encounters people might overlook: growing indoor houseplants or watching a spider’s web. And don’t forget the sky. Light pollution deprives many people of a clear sight of the night sky, but in daytime watching the sky as clouds form and move across is a simple but striking way to experience nature, and one which is possible for most people.
Maybe you would like to share nature’s impact on your mental health, or how you think barriers to access might be overcome, in Medley’s Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/359291215486002 Thank you!