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Ecominds: Putting ecotherapy on the map

Monday, 22 September 2014 Paul Farmer Mind Chief Executive

This week we bring to a close our five-year lottery-funded scheme, Ecominds. Paul Farmer, Mind Chief Executive, reflects on the scheme's success.

I’m fortunate to have been at Mind for the whole life of Ecominds. I’ve seen it grow from the germ of an idea, into a successful funding scheme and then mature into the fantastic movement that has rightfully identified the role that nature has on our physical and mental health.

I clearly remember the day when we heard from Big Lottery Fund that our Ecominds application had been successful. There was a real sense of excitement about being able to support organisations to put the whole idea of ecotherapy on the map – and now five years later we have some incredibly powerful work and some clearly evidenced outcomes.  

I’m really proud of the work that the 130 projects we funded have achieved over the past five years, which has seen over 12,000 people directly benefit from ecotherapy. I’ve visited at least a dozen of the Ecominds projects in recent years and every time I’ve asked someone what they’ve got from it, they’ve not just told me how much they’ve enjoyed the work, but also how much they’ve personally been able to gain from it.

People have repeatedly told me how much the scheme has transformed their lives; some say they’ve used it as an alternative option when medication or therapy hasn’t worked, and many have used it alongside their existing treatments.

The evaluation data collected by our researchers at the University of Essex echo these statements. They used NHS validated measures for tracking participants’ improvements in mental wellbeing, and over the life of the scheme discovered that:

  • seven in 10 people had a significant improvement in their mental wellbeing
  • self esteem was boosted by an average of 11 per cent for six of out 10 people, and
  • almost eight in 10 saw their mood improve by six per cent.

That’s got to be significant at a time when prescriptions for anti-depressants topped the 50 million mark for the first time in England last year. And crucially, for many people who aren’t in the mental healthcare system – for whatever reason – and for those who might be at risk of developing a mental health problem, Ecominds has often been one of the factors that’s helped them strike a balance and stay healthy and well.

I’ve always been a strong advocate of using nature for its health benefits – and have enjoyed rolling up my sleeves and joining in when visiting a project. The benefits are holistic: people get to make new friends while doing something meaningful; they raise their activity levels without the stress or pressure of a gym; they calmly learn new skills and enjoy being part of a team; they start to develop a better sense of nature and their local environment, and they start to share and give something back to their communities, which is good for everyone – just visit the rooftop garden at the Southbank Centre and marvel at the green oasis that’s been created by Paul Pulford and the staff and volunteers at Grounded Ecotherapy – it’s truly inspirational.         

People have also told me how getting involved has awakened a passion for nature, environmental conservation or food growing that has opened doors to training and employment. I remember speaking to a man at one of the schemes – he’d hit rock bottom, with no self-esteem, but working in the project had given him self-belief and hope. He now has a full time job in horticulture. This was never a key intention for the scheme, but it’s fantastic that we’ve helped 254 people find full-time work and 366 find part-time work – and in many cases these are people who were excluded from the labour market because of their mental health.

We’re now at an interesting junction as lottery support comes to an end. Full credit to Big Lottery Fund for backing our proposal and trusting us to award the funds on their behalf. Now we’re looking to the future to see how we can ensure a strong Ecominds legacy can be sustained.

Our own network of local Minds has a long history of using ecotherapy – and that’s a tradition we will seek to support and improve by using the evidence we’ve gathered over the last five years. We know that 57 local Minds provide some type of ecotherapy service – and green shoots are emerging with new projects recently launched by our Mind colleagues in Scarborough and Suffolk. 

We are developing some ideas for making these services more widely available, either through our local Minds – or in partnership with other organisations with support from health commissioners. We can see the value in ecotherapy and the gaps in the system where it can make a difference.   

One final task is to thank everyone who contributed to making Ecominds such a success, this includes: the staff and volunteers at the 130 organisations we funded; our independent grant panel, our own Ecominds team who expertly managed the programme; the researchers at the University of Essex – and everyone who helped them by submitting data; the Big Lottery Fund for their vision, and finally the thousands of people across the country who got involved.   

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