This week is Mental Health Awareness Week. It’s a brilliant initiative, anything that brings mental health issues into focus should be applauded. But when you think about it, it’s also a bit of a strange idea.
Why do we need to have mental health awareness events? Every single person reading this will know someone with a mental health issue. Statistics show that 1 in 4 readers will be sufferers themselves – and that was pre-pandemic, the added burdens of the last year will undoubtedly take an added toll. We don’t have broken leg awareness days, or common cold awareness days. Why is mental health different?
Of course, I do understand why really. As someone who has always lived with depression and anxiety disorders I understand the fear and, unfortunately, the shame – both from within and from those around me.
The fear of my family and friends that they’ll say or do the wrong thing, that I’ll snap or do something ‘crazy’. The shame that I know my parents feel as they watch me suffer, and worry that they somehow caused this. That some failure of theirs as I was growing up made me this way.
My own fear that that this time it’ll be too much for me, that I won’t have the strength to carry on. The fear that every pair of eyes is watching me, silently judging. My shame when someone spots the tears in my eyes – men aren’t supposed to show this sort of weakness after all.
If I had fallen and broken a leg would I feel compelled to try and stand up in front of people to prove it wasn’t really an issue? Would a loved one tell me to ‘snap out of it’ and get up and walk?
So why is mental health any different?
The truth is that we’re afraid of mental health because we don’t know enough about it. We’re ashamed of mental health issues because we don’t talk enough about them.
It’s long past time to change our attitudes. The past year has shown us that illness can strike anyone, anywhere. It exposed our vulnerabilities – but it also exposed the strength that lies within us all, the power of people and communities to work together and to endure through even the darkest of times.
One of the themes that comes up again and again when we talk about lockdown is the role that nature played in bringing hope.
The positive effects of nature on mental wellbeing are real – there is no cure for most mental health conditions, there is no vaccine coming to the rescue, no one will ever be immune – but that doesn’t mean there is no hope. Spending time in and amongst nature changes lives for the better. It helps us to think more clearly, relieves anxiety, lifts moods.
Study after study has proven this link, the science is irrefutable but for people all over the world it was only when they were denied access to it that they realised how much fresher the outdoors air is, how vibrant and comforting the colours, smells and sounds of nature are. A daily exercise walk to a greenspace became a vital part of millions of people’s lives – many of them experiencing it for the first time.
A few years ago as part of a last, desperate, throw of the dice I began to volunteer in the outdoors. I was Active, Noticing the places where flowers grew and birds built their nests. I Learned the names of trees and about the secret lives of butterflies and badgers. I Connected with new people, discovering the kindness of conservation professionals who treated a brand new volunteer as a member of the team, and I Gave something back by working with them to help the nature that was suddenly helping me.
- Be Active
- Take Notice
- Keep Learning
I didn’t know it then, but collectively these form a proven mental health recovery framework called the Five Ways to Wellbeing. It changed my life. I still have mental health issues, but I no longer say that I suffer from them.
For the past few years I’ve been working for TCV and Cumbernauld Living Landscape on a project called Wild Ways Well. Day to day I work with the Scottish Wildlife Trust and we combine the Five Ways to Wellbeing with nature, taking people out into the woods, parks and nature reserves of Cumbernauld to discover the benefits for themselves.
We go out exploring among the trees and the meadows. We learn about the wildlife that shares our spaces with us, we watch birds flitting through the trees and learn their calls. We build shelters, drink hot chocolate and toast marshmallows. We learn the names of the trees and the flowers, we feel the wind and the sun (and the rain!) on our skins.
We tell stories, draw, create art with the natural materials around us. We take photographs, use our senses, watching, listening, recording the cycle of life as it moves through the seasons. We plant flowers, survey badger setts, litterpick paths.
We talk to one another and learn each other’s story. Sometimes we can give a bit of advice, much of the time we take on board a piece of hard earned wisdom from someone else’s journey.
Unfortunately there is a perception amongst some people that the outdoors is not for them, that the woods aren’t somewhere ‘ordinary’ people should spend time. That nature reserves are somewhere only ‘nature geeks’ are welcome. It’s wrong.
At Wild Ways Well we’ve worked with people from every background, every age, every ability level. We’ve yet to find any group that that couldn’t make a connection with nature. The trees, the flowers, the bird song, nature feeds our senses and our souls. We belong outdoors amongst nature, we’re all part of nature.
Trees don’t discriminate, bumblebees don’t judge, there are few (if any) harmful side effects from a walk in the woods. There is no cost to society or to the NHS from a visit to a wildflower meadow, but the value to an individual can be immeasurable.
The only real danger is that you might develop an addiction to sunshine, clean air, peace and tranquillity.
Nature helped us all to make it through the past year and if we allow it to it can continue to help us into the future. After all the sacrifices we have made to learn this lesson it is vital that we now seize this moment and hold onto this hard won truth
Spending time outdoors, amongst nature, has the power to change lives.