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Nature and Mental Health

Ecotherapy defined…

‘Ecotherapy is one form of active healthcare intervention which attempts to draw on the benefits of nature-based activity to support people with mental health problems’ [1] 

The benefits attributed to connecting with nature and being outside are countless, however there seems to be a general lack of research surrounding the topic making it hard to know, from a clinical perspective, how effective the treatment is. However, even just at face value, ecotherapy encourages and promotes socialisation, exercise, sunlight exposure, learning and sharing emotions, all of which pertain to what is said to be ‘good mental health’ 

‘Good mental health is characterised by a person’s ability to fulfil several key functions and activities, including: the ability to learn. the ability to feel, express and manage a range of positive and negative emotions, the ability to form and maintain good relationships with others’ [2] 

Ecotherapy supports all five stages of the ‘five ways to wellbeing’ as it encourages its participants to connect, to learn, to get active, to give back and to take notice.  

‘To Connect’

Ecotherapy encourages people who may have become isolated due to their health, to socialise with others. It helps them build connections and relationships – and regain social skills.  

There is strong evidence that suggests that feeling close to, and valued by, other people can contribute to a person’s daily functioning and act as a buffer against mental ill health.   

‘To Learn’

As part of this therapy, service users are taught how to tend to and maintain a garden or plot. This can include planting and growing fruit and vegetables, weeding and pruning and creating habitats for wildlife.   

Ecotherapy supports the concept of ‘hands on learning’ which ‘provides a student with the opportunity to safely make mistakes and learn organically through trial and error’ [3] This type of learning generates a connection between the service user and the task which injects an element of care and responsibility and focusses the mind to the task at hand.   

This also causes the participant to ‘take notice’ of their surroundings considering, for example, whether their plot needs watering, why there is discoloration on the leaves of a plant or whether they need to take a water break.  

‘To get active’

Ecotherapy actively encourages exercise and activity. This helps to release feel good hormones like adrenaline and decreases the stress hormone cortisol. 

Furthermore, it has recently been suggested that the act of digging and disturbing soil releases a microbe called ‘mycobacterium vaccae’ which acts as a natural anti-depressant [4] The validity of this research has not yet been confirmed but what if it were true?  

Another benefit that comes from being active outside is participants get regular sunlight exposure. It is known that regular exposure to direct sunlight prompts the body to produce Vitamin D, a vitamin which is vital for bone, tooth and muscle health and generally boosts the mood [5] 

‘To give back’

As part of Dorset Mind’s ‘Eco in Mind’ ecotherapy project all grown produce is given to local food banks. Having this knowledge as a participant can evoke a sense of pride, accomplishment and can be very validating. 

Our Guest Blogger: 

Huge thanks to our guest blogger Izzy for her piece on the connection between nature and mental health.

Further Support:

Find out more about Dorset Mind’s ecotherapy project, see here for more details. 

If you are struggling to cope with your mental health in general, please talk to your GP. If you’re in a crisis, treat it as an emergency. Call 999 immediately or The Samaritans, FREE on 116 123.  

Dorset Mind offers group support that can also help with your wellbeing. The group offers peer support and helps to reduce stigma by normalizing conversations about mental health. You can also check out further support for stress and mental health here.  

You’ll find links for 1-2-1 and groups mental health support we offer here. 

References  

[1] The Cost Effectiveness of Ecotherapy as a Healthcare Intervention, Separating the Wood from the Trees – PMC (nih.gov) 

[2] About mental health | Mental Health Foundation 

[3] What are the Benefits of Hands on Learning? | NewSchool (newschoolarch.edu) 

[4]  Soil Helps Depression | Permaculture magazine 

[5] Vitamin D – NHS (www.nhs.uk) 

 

 

 

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