Contact with nature has lots of benefits for both physical and mental health, so wouldn’t it be good if you could go to your doctor, and instead of (or as well as) giving you a bottle of pills, they could prescribe you a good dose of nature?
Well, depending on where you live, increasingly you can. Green prescribing, as it is known, is established in a number of areas and being trialled in more. A recent collaboration between the NHS and the RSPB saw GPs at five Edinburgh practices give patients recommendations for nature based activities at different times of the year. The suggestions for May included searching for kingfishers on the Water of Leith, listening for chaffinches in Holyrood Park and volunteering to tidy a neighbour’s garden. These trials built on previous experience in Shetland, where ten practices have now adopted the idea.
Green prescribing is closely linked to another movement called social prescribing, in which patients referred not to hospitals and pharmacies but to community groups and social resources. For instance, someone who could benefit from walking more might be pointed to their local ramblers’ group. The Royal Society of Edinburgh made increased social prescribing one of its key recommendations in its report on recovery from the covid pandemic.
Of course, not everyone needs a prescription to go out and enjoy nature, but many people experience barriers to doing so, and these are what green prescribing attempts to overcome. For some people it is simply motivation. Chronic illness or depression can leave motivation levels low, and encouragement, suggestions and support can make the difference between taking up a beneficial habit or not. The biggest benefits of nature come not only from being in natural environments but from paying attention and interacting with them, and nature prescriptions can help people who aren’t used to doing so.
For others, access to nature itself is not so easy to come by. People who live in nature deprived neighbourhoods can have no easy access to quality greenspace. Such areas often have high levels of pollution and background noise, which raise levels of stress and inflammation. Access issues can be compounded by mobility problems. Others might simply struggle to find the time, with work or caring responsibilities.
This range of issues requires a range of solutions. Reforesting Scotland member Rory McPhee tends a ‘curative forest’ near Cupar in Fife, and sometimes receives referrals from a GP in Dundee. Guests are invited to take part in simple activities like walking and sitting in the forest, making a fire and brewing tea – all designed to switch off the intellectual mind (and mobile phone) and open participants to a more direct experience of their surroundings.
Reforesting Scotland’s Hut of Wellbeing project aims to provide another option. Deep immersion in nature is a great way to get the benefits, but getting away for a short break can be expensive. Woodland huts offer a low-cost, low-impact solution, and we aim to build one that people in need of respite in nature can be referred to. You can find out more and donate to our crowdfunder at www.crowdfunder.co.uk/hut-of-wellbeing.
You can find out more about the value of green prescribing in a report by the Wildlife Trusts at www.wildlifetrusts.org/news/new-report-reveals-prescribing-nature
Rory McPhee can be contacted at Lindor Curative Forest, 07800 869626.