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Using green space to improve mental health

Connecting people with the environment to improve health and wellbeing is one of the core actions outlined in the government’s new 25-year Environment Plan.


The plan sets out ambitious proposals to tackle widespread environmental problems, including waste, soil degradation and pollution as well as how the government wants to use the natural world to improve the mental and physical wellbeing of people from all ages and backgrounds. 


The government believes that often the possible benefits of contact with nature to promote good mental health or support early interventions for mental health problems are often overlooked. NHS mental health service providers are to be encouraged to explore the potential of environmental therapies. 


The government will also promote collaboration between the health and environment sectors, at national and local level. It will consider how NHS mental health providers in England can establish new working arrangements with environmental voluntary sector organisations to offer appropriate therapies – such as gardening, outdoor exercise and care farming – in natural settings to people who suffer with mild to moderate mental health conditions and who may be struggling to overcome loneliness and isolation. 


This will build on the pioneering work of South West Yorkshire Trust and the Rotherham, Doncaster and South Humber NHS Trust, working in partnership with Voluntary Action Rotherham. These organisations have developed social prescribing alongside traditional mental health services.


The main aim of social prescribing is to help people become more resilient and able to self-care. People referred to the service are more likely to continue living at home independently and also become less dependent on statutory health and social care services.  


As part of the development of social prescribing across England, specialist social prescribing teams could help to connect patients with environmental support. In support of this work, the Personalised Care Group in NHS England will explore how its own universal model supports people who would benefit from community and environmental programmes.


Standardised tools will be developed for service providers to support the roll-out of social prescribing. This will be led by The Conservation Volunteers and supported by NHS England. 


The government also says it will launch a three-year ‘Natural Environment for Health and Wellbeing’ programme, focused on supporting local authorities, health organisations, health professionals, teachers and planners in promoting the natural environment as a pathway to good health and wellbeing. Although mental health problems and early interventions will be an initial area of interest, the programme will also be charged with considering other health issues, such as obesity, where children and adults would benefit from better access to nature. “To make sure that it reaches as many people as possible, we would welcome the programme being replicated at local level. Ideally, we would like access to the natural environment put at the heart of all local Health and Wellbeing Board strategies.” 


Spending time in the natural environment can reduce stress, fatigue, anxiety and depression. It can also help to boost immune systems, encourage physical activity, combat loneliness and bind communities together.