Of a global population of 7.8 billion, 792 million people are affected by mental health issues worldwide. I am one of these people. I have no memory of life without mental illness, and I don’t imagine I’ll ever be without it.
Nature & Health - Holly Jones
In her inspiring blog, she describes how reconnecting with nature has helped her through difficult times and discover a sense of peace.
The concept of a full recovery is sometimes an unrealistic goal, and I don’t believe there should be any shame in saying so; mental illness is often embedded deep within us, and can even be a pre-programmed part of ourselves owing to genetic predisposition. It is perhaps more helpful to explore different avenues of mental health management, whatever that means to us as individuals. Talking therapies and medication can be fantastic tools for regaining control, but in addition to this I have personally benefited hugely from reconnecting with nature.
As a child I adored wildlife, and growing up in rural Mid Wales gave me an abundance of wild places to explore on my doorstep. However, as I grew older my horizon began to change. What began with panic attacks gradually spiralled into depression, and with it my world got smaller and smaller until, aged seventeen, there was nothing left - I slipped away from education, from friends and from life. For three years I wasted away in a haze of anorexia and psychotic delusions.
Rock bottom hit hard, but when it did I was overcome with the primal urge to run away to the places I’d loved before; the top of a mountain where once again I lay in the moss, or the upland where I sat freezing under stars on the edge of the Brecon Beacons Dark Sky Reserve. For several years I hadn’t given these places much thought, but when I found myself there again I was met with a sense of peace - one which medication could not manufacture.
This is something we can all experience irrespective of our individual backgrounds and pre-existing relationships with the outdoors (or lack thereof). Seeing birds near our homes, walking along riversides and through green spaces filled with wildflowers reduces stress, fatigue, anxiety and depression. What’s more, this is increasingly being recognised by medical fields. A 2018 study by Leeds Beckett University found that after volunteering with the Wildlife Trust for 12 weeks, 83% of participants reported an improvement in their mental wellbeing. Japan pioneered the practice of shinrin-yoku, or ‘forest bathing’, in the 1980s as part of a national health programme, and similar schemes are now being adopted in the UK under the NHS.
When you’re feeling low or anxious, it can be hard to find the motivation to go outside. But connecting with nature needn’t be demanding - you don’t need to complete an intrepid hike to benefit from being outdoors. Simply sitting in our gardens for ten minutes enables us to unwind in the fresh air, and taking a stroll in the local park allows our muscles a gentle stretch. Pause to engage your senses - feel the fuzziness of a hazel leaf, smell the damp freshness of woodland after rain.
I personally enjoy photography, and have found that bringing a camera on walks keeps my mind occupied as I keep an eye out for photo opportunities. Keeping trail cameras has also allowed me to see wildlife I never would have done before, and has granted me a personal connection to the wildlife around me. Capturing footage of local animals, be they deer or squirrels, can give you a sense of stewardship towards them that you may not have otherwise felt.
As of May 2020, 83.4% of the British population live in urban areas, and in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic there are many people who, in these worrying times, may not have access to green outdoor space. However, we can still benefit significantly from bringing the outside in; keeping low-maintenance succulents, herbs grown from seed or colourful flowers in a window box have all been shown to lift our mood, and has even been dubbed ‘therapeutic horticulture’.
At its heart, nature has given me something to stick around for, and in my mind few people have summarised the emotional benefits of nature as succinctly and powerfully as the mountaineer John Muir as when he wrote:
“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” - John Muir (1919)
Shropshire Wildlife Trust Trainee