Look Up! The Outdoors and Mental Health

I have never made a secret of my mental health. I have struggled with anxiety and depression my entire life to the extent that it can be debilitating. If I am late for a meeting it is quite likely because I am having a panic attack outside the room: there are days I cannot speak because the cloud over my head is so bad.

This could easily be a blog about how embarrassingly underequipped and uninformed the sector I work in is about mental health in its workforce.

But that is for another day.

I manage my mental illness in the same way a diabetic takes insulin or an asthmatic uses Ventolin. But my ‘drug’ of choice is the outdoors. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy; talking therapies; drugs – these have all had their part to play in the road to management of my illness – but for me the outdoors is my life saver.

I have been outspoken in my support for the importance of #brilliantresidentials and their positive impact, both on my life and, on the lives of so many young people. The residential experience itself has proven benefits. But when combined with outdoor learning the impact can be life changing.

Lucky enough to have parents who could and did take me to the park and to the beach these early experiences were built on through both school and organisations like London Youth. Outdoor learning both strengthened my resilience and helped medevelop strategies that, to this day, have been as important in managing my mental health as the NHS (who have been brilliant).

The value of natural, open spaces to our psychological health has long been recognised.

“Ward Thompson et al. (2012) identify three main ways the natural environment benefits mental health: 1) directly through the restorative effect of nature; and indirectly through providing opportunities for 2) positive social contact and 3) physical activity

Specific psychological benefits highlighted in research include reduced stress and anxiety, improvements to mood, increased perceived wellbeing, improved concentration and attention and cognitive restoration. Other implications from research are that gardens and nature in hospitals enhance mood, reduce stress and improve the overall appreciation of the health care provider and quality of care.”

The allotment movement plays a great part in creating these spaces and on our allotment an hour well spent planting is a good reminder that all things pass. An hour digging leaves the back slightly sore but the mind clear. An hour of dead heading – well who doesn’t that help after a long day with ‘challenging’ people!

When depression hits looking at the stars is a healthy (and free) reminder to ‘look up’. When anxious just breathing outdoor air calms me more quickly than a stuffy room. Canoeing, outdoor swimming, walking in the hills may take me slightly longer than they used to but it’s quite hard to feel bad when your cheeks are burning with cold (well except for the burning cheeks.)

And these benefits are not just for those of us who use the outdoors as our medicine. Teachers and parents can see the benefits of the outdoors on the well-being of all children and young people.

“The Natural Connections Demonstration project recently reported that 90% of children said they felt happier and healthier when learning outside, and in addition, 72% of teachers also reported a positive impact on their health.”

And yet. Not all children are lucky enough to have the start that I had.

“UK research has also shown that alongside children losing their connection with nature, there is also a “disparity in children’s access to high quality natural environments. All children benefit from opportunities provided by access to outdoor space but these benefits are not equally distributed. Whilst children have universal rights and needs, poverty places severe limits upon the extent to which they can be recognised”

Budget cuts, risk averse contexts, loss of school grounds – all stand in the way of great outdoor learning experiences in schools. And for many it is just not part of their home life either. It costs money to drive to the beach. Not everyone has a garden. And even for those of us who have these things life takes over – we forget.

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That’s why programmes such as #30dayswild are so important – a simple beautifully run campaign by the @wildlifetrusts to remind us all to appreciate the outdoors. And why schools such as Millfield Primary School are such great case studies of how outdoor learning can be integrated into school life.

It is also why work from Mind and others, on how the outdoors can be prescribed, is crucial in better treating mental illness and indeed on our physical well-being. These are themes I am delighted to be exploring at CLoTC’s annual conference later in the year.

And for me it is why I have a lifelong commitment to places such as Hindleap Warren and to the cause of residentials and outdoor learning. They saved my life. In every sense.