• Bria Dickinson

Harnessing the benefits of nature to improve health

When access to nature was restricted during lockdown, we as a nation felt the strain of this on our mental health; experiencing increased distress, anxiety and loneliness. Our wellbeing suffered. This is because our environment has a huge impact on how we feel; not only physically but emotionally and psychologically too. This will be well known by anyone who has felt a bit low but managed to get out in the fresh air for a short walk and has returned feeling refreshed, revitalised, happier and more relaxed.

Pharmacological interventions are rarely used in isolation as the only answer for effective treatment. The NHS and Public Health England are committed to driving a more holistic approach, looking at a patient’s life and wider circumstances, to provide more beneficial results and long-term change. This may include things like diet, exercise and the natural environment to make changes in attitudes and behaviours to improve health, alongside a prescription.

How can access to green spaces improve our health?

There are many benefits from connecting to nature:

· Reduce stress and anxiety

· Provide a sense of purpose

· Improve concentration

· Boost mood

· Improve fitness

· Support the immune and central nervous systems

· Enhance knowledge of the world around us

· Encourage pro-environmental behaviours

· Provide social support

· Reconnect people with their community

· Reduce isolation and loneliness

What is green social prescribing?

It’s a way for GPs and those in primary care to link people with a defined need to nature-based interventions and activities through green social prescribing link workers. It can help those suffering with and from dementia, stroke, addiction and learning disabilities and can also support people with mental health, social care and occupational therapy needs.

What do nature-based health interventions look like?

These are facilitated by trained practitioners and can take different forms:

· Therapeutic horticulture through community gardening

· Supported visits to local green spaces, waterways and the coast

· Taking part in local walking for health and cycling schemes

· Volunteering at food growing projects

· Conservation tasks such as tree planting

How does that benefit the NHS and society?

By social prescribing and treating people in the community with facilitated nature-based interventions we can reduce the number of people accessing secondary care. This can reduce the demands on the NHS at a time of much strain. It can also help to reduce the inequalities in accessing green spaces and promote community cohesion.

What does the future look like for green social prescribing?

Integrating nature into our healthcare system is not a new concept. It’s currently supported by national policy. The Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan sets out ambitions to incorporate environmental therapies into mental health services and to help more people engage with and spend time in green and blue spaces in their everyday lives. The NHS Long Term Plan also commits to expanding the number of social prescribing link workers in primary care.

The government has invested over £5.5m to better understand the benefits of accessing nature for improving health and wellbeing. In 2021, Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire CCG (aka Healthier Together) was selected as one of seven ‘Test and Learn Sites’ for green social prescribing across England. The two-year project aims not only to assess the activities which successfully connect with nature to improve health and wellbeing but also to boost understanding of how green social prescribing can be scaled up and embedded effectively into practice.

If there is one good thing to come from the pandemic, it’s the knowledge that harnessing the benefits of our natural world is a great way to make use of what is already available to us to improve our mental wellbeing. Green social prescribing is an exciting approach to reduce health inequalities, free up resources and decrease demand on services at a time of increased pressure and compliment more traditional ways of treating those in need.

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Bria, our Head of Accounts, letting out the stresses of working in med comms on a hazel coppice