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The mental health benefits of walks in nature

For Mental Health Awareness Week, retired social worker Margaret Turner looks at a new guide on walking's role in recovery...

Woman walking in nature

Professional Social Work Magazine, 22 May 2020

Many of us have long known the value of walking in woods and amongst nature, for ourselves and those we support. As one man I've worked with put it: “This does me far more good than seeing a psychiatrist”. 

Poets such as John Clare - who himself suffered mental distress – have wonderfully evoked and celebrated the natural world. Here are Clare’s opening lines to ‘On a Lane in Spring’:

A Little Lane, the brook runs close beside

And spangles in the sunshine while the fish glide swiftly by

And hedges leafing with the green spring tide...

A couple of days I go I took part in the virtual launch of the Guide to Green Walking in Mental Health Recovery. It is an inspired collaborative endeavour to highlight the immense benefits of walking outside the hospital and built environment into woodland, parkland and footpaths through green and wild spaces.  

Those behind the guide found those benefits are not solely to people as individuals but also to the relationships between them. Staff and service users walked and talked together as person to person. People open up more naturally in the natural living world, discovering new aspects to each others’ humanity – “green space is equigenic" [narrows inequalities] one speaker said.

Several speakers set the guide in an historical and wider social context. They touched on the 19th century establishment of parks in cities, the development of NHS Forests and the World Health Organisation's 2016 report ‘Urban Green Spaces and Health’.

There was questioning of the use of the Mental Health Act’s restrictive powers and concerns voiced that current models of health care are overly medical and insufficiently social. Arguments were made for creating sustainability throughout society, including the allocation of resources to green spaces. It was all very congruent with social work values.

This new guide was developed through studies of weekly walking groups at hospitals on eight Green Beacon Sites. One was in BASW’s homeland of Birmingham, at the Birmingham and Solihull NHS Trust. These groups have been able to demonstrate both immediate and enduring benefits; to give detailed “how to” guidance; and even to give reassurance that this is a “low risk” activity.

As some social workers will already know, green walking and other experiences in nature can be shown to benefit a range of other service user groups, from children with behavioural problems attending forest schools to people with dementia finding their attention capacity improved through resonances with childhood experiences of the outdoors.

In the presentation there was, inevitably, discussion about the resourcing of green walking, particularly in inpatient care. Walks are most often organised and led by occupational therapists and need a minimum of three walk leaders, one of whom could be a volunteer.

There is some concern staffing levels may not always be high enough to allow three staff members to be out of the hospital at the same time. This has led me to wonder whether some of us retired social workers might volunteer to take part as the third or fourth responsible person. I feel it could be a very valuable as well as rewarding contribution to make.

This article is published by Professional Social work magazine which provides a platform for a range of perspectives across the social work sector. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the British Association of Social Workers.