Mental health and the environment
For many people experiencing mental distress, drugs such as antidepressants and tranquillisers are the only treatments available. While these are effective for some people, for others adverse side-effects far outweigh the benefits. Mind has long campaigned for people to have access to alternative treatments and strongly advocates for the therapeutic and social benefits of physical activities.
Mind's Ecotherapy report, released in May 2007, showed that people experiencing mental distress frequently use physical activities such as walking, gardening and exercise to help lift their mood, reduce stress, provide purpose and meaning, and reduce vulnerability to depression. These simple activities can develop motivation and raise self-esteem, while contact with other people can reduce isolation, provide support and help improve social skills. Good food and nutrition also positively impact on mental as well as physical health. A greener, more active lifestyle aids positive changes to our mental health.
Many community mental health support groups, such as local Mind associations, already use gardening and similar schemes to support people with mental health problems to develop life skills and coping strategies, undertake training, achieve qualifications, and pursue employment opportunities.
Unfortunately green space is not equally distributed. Marginalised sections of the population such as people in prisons, hospitals, mental health wards and older people are often unable to get to green space. Those individuals and communities who could benefit most from contact with nature and green exercise are often least able to access it. There is also a marked relationship between lack of green space in urban areas and levels of stress.
The Ecotherapy report confirms that participating in green exercise activities provides substantial benefits for health and wellbeing. The main recommendations from the report are that:
- ecotherapy should be recognised as a clinically valid treatment for mental distress
- allocation of health and social care budgets should be informed by cost-benefit analysis of ecotherapies
- GPs should consider referral for green exercise as a treatment option for every patient experiencing mental distress
- access to green space should be considered a key issue in all care planning and care assessment
- referral to green care projects – such as green care farms – should be incorporated into health and social care referral systems
- inequality of access to green space should be addressed as a human rights, social justice and discrimination issue
- all health, social care and criminal justice institutions should be required to ensure access to green space
- designing for mental wellbeing should be recognised as good practice for architecture and town and country planning
- the benefits of green exercise should be promoted by public health campaigns, targeting young people in particular
- ecotherapy projects should be evaluated to collect data and continue to build an appropriate evidence base.
Mental health facts:
- 1 in 4 people will experience mental distress during their lifetime.
- Anyone can be affected.
- Mental ill health costs the UK £77 billion annually.
- Every year in Britain:
- 300 people in every 1,000 will experience mental health problems
- 230 of these will visit a GP because of mental health problems
- 102 of these will be diagnosed as having a mental health problem
- 24 of these will be referred to a specialist psychiatric service
- six of these will become inpatients in psychiatric hospitals (over 300,000 per year)
- Over 4,000 people take their own lives.
- 10 per cent of children aged five to 15 experience mental distress including:
- emotional disorders (depression, anxiety and obsessions)
- hyperactivity (inattention and over-activity)
- conduct disorders (awkward, troublesome, aggressive and antisocial behaviour).
People with mental health problems are some of the most socially excluded, isolated, and disadvantaged people in society, facing higher levels of stigma and discrimination. Compared with people with a physical illness, people with a diagnosed mental health condition are less likely to have a job or to be re-employed after experiencing an episode of mental distress.
The cost of mental ill health in the UK is approaching £100 billion a year with estimates predicting that by 2020 depression will be second only to heart disease as an international health problem. Together with Mind, Ecominds will not let that happen.
Find out about Ecominds, Mind's grant programme for local environmental projects that improve mental and physical health.
Read about one service users experience of Ecotherapy (Word).