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Green exercise and nature therapy have been hitting the news lately. Increasingly you’ll see them referred to in public health policy in the UK. The healing power of nature isn’t new - the ancient Greeks had over 400 temples for outdoor healing. But, in our increasingly busy, urbanised lives do we really understand the value of nature? How can we show that nature is good therapy for all sorts of people? Can it and will it - replace some uses of pharmaceuticals?
In the latest episode of the Louder Than Words Podcast, Jules Pretty and Martha Dixon will explore how University of Essex academics are providing the evidence to help in the better use of what we might call the natural health service. They will also speak to people putting these insights into action and transforming lives.
They will be joined by:
Professor Jules Pretty and journalist Martha Dixon have created the Louder than Words podcast to encourage difficult discussions, to offer a platform to people making a difference and to explain how you can take action on issues you care about.
This is the first podcast series from the Centre for Public and Policy Engagement and was developed with Comms Consult. Louder Than Words shows how research delivers solutions to global problems, how we can improve people’s lives and how we can inspire people to take action now.
Each episode of Louder Than Words will look at a key global issue and give you a chance to hear from leading researchers, policy makers, thinkers and campaigners plus those directly affected by the issue.
The first season looks at climate change, migration, mental health, inequality and nature as therapy. Join us and subscribe to upcoming podcasts.
This is Louder than Words, the podcast from the University of Essex. I’m Professor Jules Pretty.
I’m journalist Martha Dixon. This episode is all about nature as therapy.
Clips from news.
Green exercise and nature therapy have been hitting the news lately.
They are terms that have begun to appear in public health policy in the UK over the last decade or so.
If you imagine a highly anxious child who doesn’t feel able to cope within life but they’ve actually climbed a tree that they didn’t think they could try you can then actually weave an incredible narrative with them about what their capability is.
But the healing power of nature isn’t new.
We know that nature is good for health – the ancient Greeks had over 400 temples for outdoor healing.
So how can we today show that nature is good therapy for all sorts of people?
Can it and will it - replace some uses of pharmaceuticals?
In this episode we explore how University of Essex academics are providing the evidence to help in the better use of what we might call the natural health service.
We would love to influence government policy at a national level so that we are providing these opportunities for young people with investments in these nature based programmes from a very early age so that not only can we help those people but more importantly we can prevent people going down routes where it ends up costing society and themselves a lot of money.
And how a University of Essex idea about angling has led to a new European-wide initiative on mental health –
We knew from personal experience really how relaxing and how de-stressing being in nature and sitting at the side of a lake and trying to catch a few fish can be.
When mum passed away we all broke up. Different foster carers. Different places. Dad gone away never came back. I think just being out here away from everything takes your mind off everything.
Billy, bring you a cup of tea?
These youngsters are out camping on a hill. It’s a trip run by the Wilderness Foundation.
The charity takes troubled youngsters and puts them out in nature.
Chief Executive Jo Roberts says it allows people to lift themselves out of a hole.
We can actually work with the tools and wonders of the natural world to really enable people to strengthen themselves again to become sustainable and healthy and have a future that’s worth living.
I was homeless for like 2-3 years. I was having trouble with my mental illness. Your mind just clears. You don’t even have to think.
I have OCD and I haven’t thought about that since – it’s really out of my mind.
We’ve got around 30 therapists who are trained and skilled at working outdoors in a really creative way with children and adolescents and adults and then we’ve got our education team who work outside with young people really teaching and giving them that kind of engagement and love of nature and how to look after it.
It’s not hard to see how nature makes sense as a therapy. But can we prove it works to stop people ending up in care – or in prison?
The University of Essex wanted to do just that.
Academics have been following the Wilderness Foundation and its youngsters for over a decade. Here’s Dr Jo Barton
So we’ve worked with a number of young people looking at how the environment and spending time outdoors can improve different mental health measures. We tend to measure this using standardised questionnaires and we track this over time so we get a baseline measure of how they perceive themselves – their self-esteem, their mood, their hopefulness- and then we measure that at various periods of time over the programme when they’re involved in outdoor-based interventions and see how this improves over time. And what we really find that’s interesting is that for example with self-esteem – not only do we see an initial improvement when they join the programme and they have their first wilderness experience outdoors but actually we are shifting the threshold, so nine months later their self-esteem is in a much better place than where they started.
I think just being outside and being away from the chaos of their lives at home and the negative influences enables them the opportunity to be reflective and really think about themselves and who they want to be and where they see themselves in the future.
So we get them to draw shields to see how they see themselves and how others see them, and how they want to be seen and the way they verbalise and then we ask them to do that again at the end of the programme. We can really see that shift in how they see themselves and how they start to respect themselves and value themselves and believe that others see them in a much more positive light.
Over half of the world’s population now lives in towns and cities. Jo from the Wilderness Foundation says this urban living distant from nature, coupled with different parenting styles, and has led to a shift in how kids are growing up.
I am really interested in the whole thing about adventure and play and how that actually helps children build their resilience. So, I don’t want to be cliché but we are looking at some of the issues around overprotection in our modern world. When I was a child I was completely, probably, quite abandoned but my whole world was around playing outside in nature, climbing trees, building dens. Actually being quite risky. And what we’re seeing today is a lot of children not taking risks. The anxiety is projected out from them, often from families, from teachers, from friends, which make everything risk averse. You often hear people saying be careful, don’t do that. Be careful And actually the only way a child can develop an inner understanding of what their capability is, is to try and then see how it goes and to learn from that. Obviously as an adult you’ve got to be careful and cautious if you’re in charge of a child. But you don’t willingly let them run into the middle of the road or let them climb a tree that’s so high they can break their neck. But to enable them to explore their own boundaries in as measured way as possible but giving them freedom.
So we’re very keen in a safe and sensible way to let them explore boundaries, to find their space, to find their capabilities. And I think if we as adults look back at our biggest learning curve, the things that gave us the biggest boost of our self-confidence and self-awareness it’s usually when we’ve taken on something that is harder than we thought. And we’ve had to learn because we failed – and that’s not failure or we’ve had something joyous and wonderful in terms of our confidence because we succeeded. And it’s all experiential. So we’re very keen on this idea of connecting people from a heart base. Not just the rational thinking process but what does it feel like. And then actually giving them the tools to be able to learn and use that in a kind of not a fixed mindset, but a growth mindset.
Chickens and chat at Growing Together.
How are you doing Barry? I’m alright thank you
Matt King runs Growing Together – a charity based in Essex that’s all about digging and growing in community gardens. He loves chatting to those who come.
Narrative between Matt and a member of the community gardens
What do you like about coming here? I love all the staff
Do you make lots of friends here?
yes, Staff are nice. My favourite thing is my chickens, but unfortunately I can’t do it at the moment
Because of bird flu?
yeh, unfortunately. When they get all better I can clean them, wash them, do what I have to do
So, before you came here what were you experiencing?
Well I was a bad boy before I came here. I used to be a bad drinker, very bad.
Then all the staff – I came here and said I can do this. an I’ve been here since.
How did it make you feel when you were drinking?
I still get that sometimes but not all the time … I get by
What difference does it make coming somewhere like this to grow together?
I speak to people, speak to staff – who sit down and listen to you. yeah
We run a whole range of support services for people with anxiety and depression or severe and enduring mental illnesses and help people in their journey to recovery and wellbeing. I think it’s really important that mental health services complement one another. I think medicine has its place and therapy has its place but it’s also really important to have social support, peer support and that sort of hope, opportunity and control that comes with positive activities, being with other people and giving people a sense of purpose and a sense of wellbeing. I think medicine and clinical services are really important but unless you have that broader aspect of recovery it can be really, really tough for people.
Discussion with young person at Growing together
I had a late Aspergers diagnosis in 2009 so I was really not socialising going and not confident at all and was really struggling to get out and about and the big one probably looking back was I really didn’t know what to do with myself so yeah, so I just started coming here to sort my sort of wellbeing, recovery do something difficult, yeah and out of it I found a big passion for horticulture.
Did that build your confidence?
Oh! big time yeah. I think I probably didn’t realise how confident I could be in life before, I think without gardening.
Over the last ten years we’ve seen a massive growth in increase in mental health wellbeing and mental health support. We’ve now got funding from the NHS, which I’m really pleased to be working in partnership with the NHS to run the recovery college, to run the wellbeing hub to provide positive activities for people.
Services like the Growing Together project, the therapy and community gardens tend to be harder to fund from statutory sources so we really have to go out to the grant making trusts and foundations to the general public and to other people to support that. And the evidence base is definitely building, the evidence base is there but convincing people that therapeutic gardening, being outdoors, working with nature and giving people that sense of opportunity and control by being in a community garden setting – just, it’s quite a big leap for people in the NHS to see that’s, you know that’s an important thing to be funded and that’s a way out when it’s a very different alternative to clinical services to medicine.
The University of Essex is now taking its proven research to push for public funding for therapy like Growing Together. Here’s Jo Barton again.
Collectively there’s so many examples of good practice going on across the country that from a research perspective what we want to do is enable some consistency in how we measure these changes in these young people so we can increase the evidence that can then influence policy-makers to invest in these young people in these types of programmes that are preventative rather than necessarily just therapeutic to really make sure we’re meeting their needs as young as possible.
We are starting to see a shift from local council perspective, government funding thinking this could be a new blueprint for how we support these young people and actually when we start to look at the monetary value, which unfortunately the reality is that money still talks the cost of these types of programmes compared to the cost of being in a young offenders institute for example, um, in the long term it’s much more cost effective as well as most importantly being a lot more beneficial for the young people themselves. We would love to influence government policy at a national level so that we are providing these opportunities for young people with investments in these nature based programmes from a very early age so that not only can we help those people when they do experience difficulties in their lives but more importantly we prevent people going down routes where it ends up costing society and themselves a lot of money.
We know that nature is good for us whether we are outside or in: patients in hospital wards that have green views recover more quickly. Hospices and cancer centres are already very good at this kind of green design.
We’ve also heard on this podcast that UK health systems are now ready to use nature as an official form of treatment.
Now we’ve added one more layer to this.
Angling as therapy.
So I’m Nick Cooper and I am a senior lecturer at the University of Essex in the psychology departmen. We’ve done some research looking at the effects of being out in nature on military veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – or PTSD. And we were particularly interested in looking at the benefits of angling, which sounds a bit of a weird thing to be looking at but we knew from personal experience really how relaxing and how destressing being out in nature, sitting at the side of a lake and trying to catch a few fish can be.
The military veterans we’ve been working with come from a wide variety of backgrounds and of all different ages. We’ve had guys in their early twenties who’ve been serving in Afghanistan or a bit older some in the Gulf War right the way up to, I think the oldest military veterans we’ve had were people in their early 60s who fought in the Falklands war. Now all of these people have experienced some kind of trauma while at war. They were experiencing things like flashbacks to the original trauma or they were having terrible problems sleeping, or being, another thing that people with PTSD often talk about is being hyper vigilant. It means they’re always looking around - looking for threats in the environment – trying to see if there’s anything out there trying to get them. So these are the kind of everyday struggles that people with PTSD are living with. The results that we were getting were really surprising. So we’ve found really significant decreases in the symptoms of PTSD. So people were much less vigilant, people were much less anxious and people were able to sleep better.
This breakthrough in PTSD treatment caught the attention of the film department at the University of Essex. Their documentary called Lifted follows the stories of the veterans as they battle through serious mental health issues to find joy in fishing.
Not only has this programme led to UK government support – but it’s also sparked an international movement across Europe – how to use angling as therapy.
We’re very excited about where it’s going mainly because we knew on an individual level how good this is for people and then we’ve managed to prove that, we think, scientifically and showing that on a larger scale and now we’re rolling it out to many more people. At the moment, not only is it going to be available in Essex but we are pushing it out around the country as far as we can so we’re working with some of the largest angling businesses in the county to try and roll this out to more people using other lakes around the UK but then obviously across into Europe as well when we get the chance.
We hope you’ve enjoyed Louder than Words
This episode was all about nature as therapy.
Join us next time when we’re diving into inequality.
What’s driving the widening gap between wealthy and poor
– and what can we do to solve it.
Thank you for listening. This was the Louder Than Words podcast from the Centre for Public and Policy Engagement at the University of Essex. You will find links to the contributors and their work and books on the Centre’s website.
Professor Jules Pretty
27 May 2021
Categories: Podcast, Public Engagement, Louder than Word Podcast
Professor Jules Pretty
12 May 2021
Categories: Podcast, Public Engagement, Louder than Word Podcast