Reconnecting with the natural environment for Mental Health Awareness Week
12 May 2022
Running in May each year, Mental Health Awareness Week is a poignant reminder for everyone to take care of their emotional and mental wellbeing. While its full impact is still being researched and understood, Covid-19 has undoubtedly had a significant effect on mental health for many people of all ages.
Despite the wealth of communication technology and social media available to us, and increased awareness of mental health, one in four adults feel lonely at least some of the time. There is no one single cause, but there are external factors and circumstances which could make an individual more prone to lasting loneliness, such as a person’s age, career, ethnicity, and living with a long-term disability. And these are only a few of the more susceptible groups.
It is important to realise that being ‘lonely’ is not the same as being physically ‘alone’ as leading mental health charity, Mind, explains. The feeling of disconnect or emptiness can still occur despite being around other people. The Mental Health Foundation, the organisation behind Mental Health Awareness Week, defines loneliness is a ‘mismatch’ between the relationships we have and those that we need. Add a global pandemic and the various lockdowns into the equation and it is not difficult to see why we are seeing loneliness, and mental health problems overall, increasing.
At the height of the first Covid-19 lockdown two years ago, the natural environment provided an oasis of calm in an otherwise tumultuous world. And there is strong research outlining the benefits nature can bring – in fact, nature was last year’s Mental Health Awareness Week theme – however accessing parks and open spaces like the ones we maintain at Nurture Landscapes Group is not always as easy as it sounds. Increased urbanisation is one reason but is not the only factor; limited transport and other health conditions also have an influence.
As part of its Loneliness UK Report, the Mental Health Foundation earmarks a need to build “a greener living environment that supports social contact”, embedding a series of universal design principles. This approach, also known as inclusive design, aims to ensure that any building or space is designed for all needs, physical and mental. While a key aspect in the designing of facilities such as care homes, a similar model should be adopted throughout the whole of the built environment sector.
This approach will open up what is described in the Loneliness UK Report as “pro-social spaces”, that are maintained to a high standard, open for all groups, and, most importantly, safe. They are also areas that encourage connections with others, much like a collaborative learning space at a school or university. And research conducted in Switzerland, arguably one of the most photogenic countries in the world, suggests that even having a view of nature out of a home window has significant emotional benefits.
At Nurture, our customers are increasingly looking at how to incorporate the natural world into office and landscape design. Take living walls as an example – these are an effective and eye-catching way of bringing the outdoors indoors and utilise the well-documented benefits such as improving air quality and reducing stress.
Each person has individual characteristics and coping means. A walk in the park may not be the solution for everyone but opening up natural spaces in an otherwise heavily urbanised world may just act as a starting point where communities can bring isolated individuals into a supportive fold.