Tuesday 14 June 2011

Nature and the impact upon mental health

Mad, bad and dangerous, these are all statements you may hear from time to time that describe a person who is mentally unwell. “Feeling tranquil, being in nature, being at ease, not feeling judged”, are all statements I have personally heard from people who are mentally unwell when they are given the opportunity to explore and discover wild and open places both in Norfolk and further afield.

A small, but growing, number of projects in the UK are introducing adults who are mentally unwell to the great outdoors. One such project provides opportunities for its participants to discover and explore wild places and open landscapes as a means to promoting and enhancing people’s mental health. Discovery Quest is an innovative and challenging community-based walking projects that supports adults with serious mental health problems who live in Norfolk. I am fortunate enough to work for this project and have seen with my own eyes the transformations that take place when an individual engages with the outdoors.

Participants who take part in the Discovery Quest programmes are given the opportunities to explore the Norfolk countryside on a weekly basis. They walk, learn and develop knowledge in a group setting. Later, they explore some of Britain’s national parks, such as the Lake District in northwest England and the Brecon Beacons in south Wales. The final stage involves a longer expedition in the Scottish Highlands. However, Discovery Quest is about more than just walking, it stimulates and educates participants in conservation and environmental awareness and provides a structured wildlife education package.

Often in times of mental distress, one important element that appears to fade away when distressing situations take over is the disconnection with nature’s natural biorhythms. Therefore, one of the aims of the project is to encourage awareness and responsibility for the natural environment. This is achieved in a spirit of fun, adventure and exploration.

It may be fair to say that human beings in the west generally spend long periods confined in concrete buildings far away from remote and wild places. Perhaps we have lost touch with our symbiotic relationship with the very ground we walk. Many academics argue that this disconnection with nature causes an imbalance in the mind and dis-ease occurs. It is not uncommon for participants who turn up at the start of a Discovery Quest walk or expedition to not communicate or respond in an open friendly manner to either their peers or staff. By the end of the walk or expedition, the same people are talking, laughing and sharing their experiences.

It is my personal belief that nature is the greatest therapist. Nature in all its forms has one abiding factor, its ability to be present and accept the impermanence of life. Nature appears to have the greatest ability to adapt to adversity. The difference with nature and the human race is nature does not forcefully impose its will. When people become dis-connected with nature, they appear to demonstrate the opposite, not being present, and find difficultly in accepting the things they cannot change. Once connection occurs with nature, a transformation appears to takes place and people become more accepting, present with themselves and others. Numerous studies both in the UK and further afield have revealed that spending quality time in wide-open places greatly enhances people’s well-being and sense of who they are. In 2009, Rachel Hine, Jules Pretty and Jo Barton conducted a literature review focusing on research that examined the Social, Psychological and Cultural Benefits of Large Natural Habitat & Wilderness Experience. For more information, follow the link.

Writing in the Guardian, the novelist Clare Allan, who has been an inpatient in a mental health unit in the past, revealed how a recent break in Snowdonia had left her feeling revitalized.
‘It does seem a shame, that when people are in crisis, when their self-esteem is at an all-time low, we put them in an environment about as far removed from the Glyders [a mountain range in Snowdonia] as it’s possible to imagine,’ she wrote. ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, instead of locking people up in airless wards with nothing to do, we took them into the mountains? I’m sure I’m being extremely naive, and there are infinite reasons why it can’t ever happen but it would be good though, wouldn’t it?’
Of course, there are many possible responses to Ms Allan’s apparently naïve question. For example, some might raise health and safety concerns (either real or imagined), or cite economic pressures. Opinions over what constitutes effective treatment might be raised, with some arguing that, for example, that the role of medication is crucial. Meanwhile, national or local policies might hinder or foster development, and some health practitioners might - dare I say it – see such novel initiatives as a threat to their professional existence. However, in my limited experience, observing people who are mentally unwell, be given the opportunity to connect with nature certainly reaps a positive and rewarding outcome.

I wish to end this blog with a quote from a female participant who had been involved with mental health services for many years, and in 2009 joined the programme:
“Being so close to nature can itself improve people’s mood and outlook on their life. I have witnessed group members overcome with the beauty and delights nature has to offer. Discovery Quest has given me back my hope, and made me realise that the future does not have to be ruled by my mental health condition, and that I am in control. I could have easily let it (my mental health problems) continue to control my life, instead Discovery Quest has helped me see that I can choose what I do and even when faced with problems I can still achieve great things. Everyone pulled together as a and it was great to see when you take away all the distractions of life how people bond with each other, and work as one. Even without the support of care workers and family we can cope! It has been a real revelation as to how things can influence our lives, some positive and some negative”. B.W. 18/09/2009
For more information www.discoveryquest.org. Facebook: Discovery Quest page. Twitter: Discovery_Quest.

Discovery Quest has been nominated for a National Lottery Award, best health project 2011. In order to be in a chance of moving to the finals we need your vote! Please follow the link: http://www.lotterygoodcauses.org.uk/awards/best-health-project/121/.

Paul Lefever (Project Manager Julian Housing Support - Discovery Quest)

References: Allan C (2009) Peaks can be an antidote to the troughs of mental illness. www.guardian.co.uk/society/2009/sep/02/mental-healththerapy-clare-allan (accessed: 29 March 2010]

Pics: Discovery Quest


  1. Interesting post. It's true, nature & the great outdoors are fantastic for raising the spirits. I notice there's now even an NHS gardening course to help combat depression.

  2. A fantastic project that deserves to be at the forefront of provision for people experiencing mental distress, rather than the exception. A week on an inpatient acute ward can be for many a uniquely distressing experience, despite the best efforts of hospital staff, and there is little change from a thousand pounds per person. Discovery Quest is profoundly life changing and the hidden benefits from the environmental awareness and opportunities that it creates for participants remains with people long after they move on from the programme. As Paul so rightly states, the environment is rich in resources that nourish people both physically and mentally.