Nature on prescription - doctor's orders

Nature on prescription - doctor's orders

Volunteers by Caroline Fitton

Volunteering in nature has a positive impact on people’s mental health, as discovered in a new Wildlife Trusts report - come and join a work party!

The findings of a new survey by The Wildlife Trusts published last week (4 October 2017) show the beneficial effects of volunteering in nature on people’s mental health. Marking World Mental Health Day this week, Tuesday 10 October, these impactful findings make a powerful case - results indicate that volunteering work offers an important non-medical service that can and does reduce the current burden on the NHS. Put simply, working outside with a group of like minded people is really good for all of us, making us feel better, happier and more connected to others. 

The study - The Health and Wellbeing Impacts of Volunteering with The Wildlife Trusts - was the third phase of scientific research carried out by the University of Essex on behalf of The Wildlife Trusts. It assessed changes in 139 participants’ attitudes, behaviour and mental wellbeing over the course of 12 weeks during which they took part in nature conservation volunteering activities.

WT BCN Senior Reserves Manager Nancy Reed says: “Since I started working in conservation nearly 15 years ago, I’ve seen many times how helpful and even transformative volunteering can be for people struggling with their mental health. My life has been changed by it and so have many others. There’s something about being outdoors, carrying out physical work with a group of friendly, welcoming, like-minded people, that can just help to lift your mood. It needn’t be the start of a career, like it was for me, it might just be a hobby, but it’s one that can lead to a lifelong interest and better mental health – and that’s a scientific fact!”

Volunteering with the Trust's work parties is both sociable and varied (these invariably involve cake and a cuppa along the way, see left). There are midweek and weekend group work parties across our three counties with a variey of habitat maintenance from woodland to wetland and grassland. 

Quotes from volunteers who took part in the study include: “I feel more connected to nature and my environment and have developed interests in this area,” and “It’s restoring my faith in human nature.”

Dominic Higgins, Nature and Wellbeing Manager at The Wildlife Trusts says: “The evidence is loud and clear – volunteering in wild places has a clear impact on people’s health; it makes people feel better, happier and more connected to other people. Participants also reported increases in their sense of connection to nature. The Department of Health should take note – our findings could help reduce the current burden on the National Health Service because they illustrate a new model of caring for people that does not rely solely on medication and traditional services.”

The study found that 95% of participants identified as having poor levels of mental health at the start, reported an improvement in six weeks - which increased further over 12 weeks. The mental wellbeing of more than two-thirds (69%) of all participants had improved after just six weeks. Improvements were greatest for people new to volunteering with The Wildlife Trusts and those who had poor levels of mental health at the start. Most participants were attending projects because of a health or social need (suffering with a mental health problem or isolated from others, resulting in loneliness and inactivity). They also reported significantly enhanced feelings of positivity, increased general health and pro-environmental behaviour, higher levels of physical activity and more contact with greenspace. 


Read a four page summary of the research here