More of us than ever are stuck indoors, whether we are working at home, self-isolating, or socially distancing from other households. Long periods of isolation are already impacting many people’s mental health and will continue to do so.
On the other hand, people have reported discovering outdoor spaces on their doorstep as they are forced to stay local. Many say they have felt happier for doing so.
This reinforces the surge of research exploring the psychological benefits of connecting to nature that has developed in recent years. The idea is also growing that encouraging time in and engagement with nature has enormous potential in terms of mental health and wellbeing.
There are more and more programs explicitly aimed at helping people with experiences of distress by providing structured contact with nature. These are variously referred to as nature-based interventions, ecotherapy or green care. A growing evidence base suggests they are effective in alleviating distress and fostering recovery and resilience—for people but also, at least potentially, for nature too.
I think programs like this need to be rolled out en masse, with a few vital provisos.
My work often involves evaluating nature-based interventions from a psychological perspective. I have repeatedly witnessed the benefits of time spent in nature for those involved.
One organization I work with, called Grow, takes small groups of six to eight people—often strangers at first – into nature. Participants all suffer, or have suffered, from debilitating forms of psychological distress and are recruited on that basis. Like many such services, Grow operates with funding from sources like the National Lottery, larger charities and local council grants to run a number of programs a year.
Clients are not yet referred through or commissioned by the health service. Your doctor might be more likely today to suggest you get outside more in a move towards green prescriptions. But institutionalized health provision is still catching up with the evidence of the benefits of structured, supported and sustained contact with nature.
At Grow, trained professionals run a series of activities to help participants connect to nature on daily trips, once a week, for eight weeks. Activities include mindfulness, silent walks, foraging, sharing food, identifying flora and fauna, building fires, arts and crafts using natural objects, and reflective diaries, alongside more traditional active conservation activity like planting, clearing and coppicing.
Colleagues and I have collected surveys, diaries and interview data about the project over a number of years. Our findings reveal how transformative the experience has been for participants. (I was so impressed I later became a trustee of the charitable organization involved.) We found plenty of evidence of the psychological benefits of nature connection, but also, vitally, something else—a deepening of social connectedness.
For people struggling emotionally, socially or psychologically, just being in nature seems to rekindle their ability to relate to and engage with others. Feeling present and “held” by the natural environment can nurture new and positive forms of social contact, which