We are now facing the threat, or reality, of another period of severely limited activities, social and financial deprivation and continued uncertainty.
These conditions will be exacerbated by fewer daylight hours and colder weather and we are going to have to dig deep to counteract the psychological – and physical – damage that these constraints will inflict on our lives and well-being. The worst hit will again be the poorest and most vulnerable sectors of society; sectors which will already have suffered the worst losses and will already be the most depleted.
To have the best possible chance of surviving these deprivations and uncertainties, I suggest we focus on building resilience and accessing resources to provide resistance to infection rather than continually trying to avoid something that may be with us for some considerable time.
It has been evident from the first period of lockdown that those who are fortunate enough to have adequate space – whether in homes, gardens, parks or the countryside at large – have fared better than those who don’t.
The one thing we do all have, however, is the natural environment itself. It is a resource that needs to be made available to all but it seems there is still not enough understanding of its beneficial properties in keeping us fit, both physically and mentally.
Research shows that those who live in harmony with nature suffer significantly less anxiety and enjoy better health than those who are alienated from it. In the 1970s, the condition of Nature Deficit Disorder was formally identified by Richard Louv and, since then, there has been extensive research and a plethora of books and papers published evidencing the important way in which nature contributes to our overall health. Sadly, until quite recently, this theory was widely regarded as “alternative” and the benefits largely discounted.
Fortunately, luminaries such as David Attenborough and Simon Schama have begun talking eloquently of the risks to ourselves of becoming distant from our natural environment. It has perhaps taken the experience of lockdown to alert us all to the reality that we disconnect from nature at a significant physical and psychological cost to ourselves.
To explore this further, in September of this year I facilitated an outdoor woodland therapy session, working with my daughter who is an experienced Forest School Leader.
We brought together a group of 10 self-selecting adults who were interested in experiencing how spending a few hours in a woodland environment could affect their feelings and mood.
We set no fixed goals, but just asked that they tried to remain in the moment as far as possible and to be open and receptive to what was around them in the form of sights, sounds, smells and touch. We talked a little about the cultural, historical and transformative elements of woodlands and the way in which trees communicate with each other through their roots and leaves to warn of predators or other dangers. The example of nature is one of collaboration and community rather than division and dominance, thus making it more resistant to threat and increasing its chances of survival.
When we checked out at the end of the session, there was a tangible energy in the group which had not been present before and people reported feeling lighter, freer and inspired –
no-one wanted to leave!
Journalist and author Isabel Hardman tells of her own experience and mental health recovery through the aid of nature in The Natural Health Service, a book published earlier this year. If her excellent and thoroughly researched book was formally acknowledged, I believe that we would have an invaluable resource that could be prescribed by GPs as a valid medication and one that could be made available to everyone, whatever their personal circumstances or whatever the external threat.
Hospitals now recognise that gardens have a therapeutic value to long-stay patients. That is a great start.
My fear remains, however, that Nature Deficit Disorder is not yet being taken seriously enough. Unless that happens soon, I worry there will more people presenting with a serious mental health crisis in the very near future.
By Sue Sutcliffe