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The Maudsley Blog

Mental Health Awareness Week: the positive impact of nature

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week and this year’s theme is nature. Being in the great outdoors is good for our mental health and many of us have appreciated nature more during lockdown.

Find out how our Tobacco Dependence Advisors Jamal John and Matthew O’Gormon are using nature and outdoor activities to support patients' health and wellbeing.

Read on to find out how patients and staff at Bethlem Royal Hospital benefit from its 200 acres of green space, and discover how the Grounding Project offers horticultural therapy and other support for refugees and asylum seekers who have experienced trauma.

Nature projects at Bethlem Royal Hospital

Bethlem Royal Hospital is set in 200 acres of green space, including a walled garden. Here Bethlem's Head Occupational Therapist Peter O’Hare explains how patients and staff benefit from these:

"The Walled Garden has become a thriving aspect of hospital life which is greatly appreciated and well used by patients and staff alike. Supported by the Maudsley Charity, the project provides much needed outdoor healthy physical activities for service users while producing fresh produce from the walled garden for the benefit of patients and staff.

"It’s over a decade since the Walled Garden was built and the benefits that have accrued to all those who have visited it have clearly demonstrated that outdoor activities in association with nature are an extremely therapeutic tool. As well as traditional horticulture, the range of activities offered over the years include nature appreciation, apple pressing and forest therapy. Recently, service users have had the opportunity to discover, explore and conserve wild places through participating in the John Muir Award. This week they are collaborating with the art studio for ‘Art in the Garden’ workshops in preparation for taking part in the Chelsea Fringe, a Chelsea Flower Show initiative.

Some feedback from people who have benefited from the nature projects:

  • "The therapeutic benefits of gardening enable me to have a sense of calmness and relaxation in a somewhat chaotic life."
  • "Being outdoor with nature means for that short period I can breath and nothing else matters."
  • "The project has also been instrumental in the restoration of Bethlem’s orchards including the planting of heritage fruit varieties to ensure the future of the orchards. We have opened the gardens, orchards and nature trails to the public to help break down barriers and promote the therapeutic benefits of horticulture and nature for mental wellbeing."

The Grounding Project

At the Grounding Project we have long been aware of the powerful mental health benefits of being in contact with nature. The Grounding Project offers horticultural therapy, community support, EMDR therapy and psychoeducation for refugees and asylum seekers who have experienced trauma.

Until March 2020, we met in the beautiful surroundings of Roots and Shoots, a community garden scheme in Lambeth. Here we would meet and do some gardening, share a meal together, learn different ways to cope with mental health difficulties, and join together in a yoga class. The group members are very supportive of one another, and really benefit from the peer support. They reported improvements in wellbeing, feeling less lonely and isolated, and even feeling ‘like a family’. They really enjoyed being in the garden, growing healthy vegetables and sharing food fresh from the garden.

During this last year the project has looked very different. We have adapted to ensure that group members have been supported over the phone, the yoga class has moved online and we have been doing our psychoeducation group online. Attendance has remained high and group members have found comfort in being able to at least meet together over Zoom.

Here is a reflection about the year from one of the group:

"My name is Y. I am a member of the gardening group at roots and shoot and also the grounding project yoga. When we were locked down this year, there I was, sitting at home all day and night. Each passing moment I grew more anxious and the anxiety fed the loneliness and the loneliness fed the depression. My loneliness took me by surprise at times. The Grounding Project with South London and Maudsley were contacting me through social media, phone calls and virtual group yoga. I have been struck by the importance of social media for reconnecting people who can’t be physically together anymore. It certainly helped me. I don’t feel lonely as I did. The yoga is like a therapy for me.

I have a message to anyone who is feeling lonely or is alone - just hold on. There is someone or something out there that can help you".

We have all missed being together in the garden at Roots and Shoots, but nature has continued to play a significant part in the project. Last spring we sent out growing kits to everyone, and soon received reports and photos of sprouting salad plants. Many of the group have continued to sow seeds and grow some vegetables in a window box or a balcony. Talking about this activity has been the focus of many of our conversations.

Being in nature even for a short time can reduce feelings of isolation, make us feel calmer and protect our mental health. In the project we often focus on grounding exercises to stabilise the nervous system and bring us in to the present moment. Grounding with all five senses can be much easier in the natural world or even looking out at a natural scene. We have been able to do these exercises together over the phone, and also encourage people to get outside regularly and take notice of the nature around them.

We celebrated getting through this difficult time in a zoom gathering, sharing reflections and poems. Here is a poem by A, one of the group members:

Isolating like a seal in North Pole,
Hibernating like a frog waking up from long sleep,
Yawning and stretching in boredom roaring like a king lion In a breezy summer afternoon under the shade,
Cleaning obsessively like a bird cleaning and fixing her nest,
In bad days when there is drought elephants remember the good days,
So like a memory of fish I'm quickly forgetting this treble covid nightmares,
So like a giraffe in late sunset afternoon sitting under a tree toward the sun wondering what tomorrow will bring forth and so am i,
Good and great days to follow.

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