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Ecotherapy: Go wild, stay well

Laura Sevier

21st September, 2010

An average one in four people in the UK will suffer a mental health problem at some point. New research, and a pioneering therapy project, are proving that nature and the wild outdoors have the power to heal and should be included within a mix of treatments

Every Friday at 1pm a small group of people who are experiencing mental distress - everything from depression to schizophrenia - meet up in Taunton. David Topham, a support co-ordinator for the mental health charity Mind then drives the group to a nearby nature reserve where the conservation work begins.

Under the guidance of a Wildlife Trust officer, tasks include helping to clear overgrown paths, clearing bracken (to encourage rare butterflies) and clearing hay (to help preserve a species-rich hay meadow.)

After about an hour and a half, the group go for a walk around the reserve guided by one of the Wildlife Trust staff.

According to Topham, feedback from the participants has been ‘overwhelmingly positive'. ‘A couple of them have said, "I'm sleeping better" or that they are enjoying the tasks or activity. You can see them blooming.'

Go Wild, Stay Well' is the name and ethos of this project, run by the Taunton and West Somerset branch of Mind, in partnership with the Somerset Wildlife Trust. It is one of the many ‘green exercise' projects (also known as ‘green care' or ‘ecotherapy') taking place around the UK as a treatment for mental health problems.

‘Ecotherapy is just a posh way of saying "get into the natural environment, do something physical and you'll feel better about yourself,' says Topham. ‘It's not complicated but it's very effective.'

Wild things

People have known for years that getting outside in nature makes you feel better, more relaxed and revived. Mind has taken this a step further by looking at how it can be used to treat mental health problems. Many local Mind associations have run green projects incorporating gardening, walking and conservation work for years.

Katy Prior, a spokesperson for Mind says: ‘Green exercise has been proven to improve mental wellbeing, lifting mood and boosting self-esteem. Whether it's involvement in a horticultural development program, or an exercise program supervised by a therapist or even a rambling group, all can provide significant improvement to mental wellbeing. Green care should be offered as an additional treatment option.'

Mental health charities estimate that one in four people in the UK will suffer a mental health problem at some point in our lives. The number of prescriptions made each year for antidepressants in England has doubled in a decade, (reaching 39.1 million in 2009) and a survey by the Mental Health Foundation found that 75 per cent of GPs have prescribed medication to people with long term depression believing another treatment would have been more appropriate.

On a wider scale, the World Health Organisation predicts that by 2020 depression will be second only to heart disease as an international health problem.

Green shoots

This is where green exercise comes in. Proponents say it is an accessible, cost-effective and natural addition to existing treatment options. But how available are these schemes - and does it really work?

At the moment, green exercise schemes are not widely available. Few GPs regard ecotherapy as a serious treatment - or they just wouldn't think of referring a patient to a local conservation project. Often no such schemes exist locally.

However, thanks to Ecominds, a £7.5 million lottery-funded grant scheme run by Mind, up to 130 local environmental projects are being given a funding boost. The Go Wild Stay Well project, which launched in July, received a grant of nearly £60,000.

To counter skepticism within the medical profession, the charity has been instrumental in gathering research to show green exercise can be an effective treatment for mental illness.

In 2007, Mind commissioned the University of Essex to research the effect of green exercise on mental wellbeing. One study, featured in the resulting Ecotherapy report, compared the wellbeing of people with varying mental health problems after a walk in a country park and a walk in an indoor shopping centre. 71 per cent of people reported a decrease in depression after the country walk and 90 per cent had increased self-esteem. In contrast, 50 per cent said their tension actually got worse in the shopping centre.

According to the report, green exercise has many benefits for mental health (lowering stress and boosting self-esteem) and physical health (lowering blood pressure and helping to tackle obesity). In addition, it provides a source of meaning and purpose, helps to develop skills and form social connections.

Mind's findings are backed up by other research that has shown, for instance that exercise can be as effective as antidepressants in treating mild to moderate depression.

‘Green care is an important part of the future for mental health,' Kay Prior says. ‘Prescribing it as part of mainstream practice could potentially help the millions of people across the country who are affected by mental distress. It's time that it was seriously considered by GPs.'

Peace of mind

For David Topham's group in Taunton, people can self refer. ‘The GP may think it's a load of mumbo jumbo. We don't want to exclude people.'

The aim, says Topham, is to get the therapy into the NHS. For this to happen, there needs to be more research, which is why projects such as Go Wild Stay Well are being evaluated by the University of Essex with participants filling out surveys before and after.

The Go Wild Stay Well project lasts ten weeks per group with one session a week. Will the participants have access to green exercise after they have completed the ten-week scheme? ‘In an ideal world it would be great to slot people into similar experiences but transport proves a problem,' he says. ‘I hope it gives people the opportunity to do further conservation work or go for a walk out from Taunton.'

Overall he hopes that people will feel ‘a lot better and will engage with life more fully doing things other people take for granted such as paid work.'

Other similar projects funded by Ecominds indicate there can be success stories. One in Durham has seen people work towards a horticultural qualification, whilst preparing and presenting a garden in the RHS Tatton Park and Gateshead flower shows, where it won Best in Show. The project helped the participants recover from depression and anxiety and build the confidence to seek employment.

It must be stressed that for many, green exercise will only be part of the overall package of treatments. Drugs and talking therapies have their place too and ‘a mixed bag can be most useful,' admits Topham. ‘But hopefully there will come a point when the amount of drugs used will reduce. For some people it might mean they can survive without medication. This is such positive thing in people's lives.'

Laura Sevier is a freelance journalist

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