© The Ecologist
A pioneering ecotherapy scheme is attracting increasing interest, including funding
An average one in four people in the UK will suffer a mental health problem at some point. New research, and a pioneering therapy project, are proving that nature and the wild outdoors have the power to heal and should be included within a mix of treatments

Every Friday at 1pm a small group of people who are experiencing mental distress - everything from depression to schizophrenia - meet up in Taunton. David Topham, a support co-ordinator for the mental health charity Mind then drives the group to a nearby nature reserve where the conservation work begins.

Under the guidance of a Wildlife Trust officer, tasks include helping to clear overgrown paths, clearing bracken (to encourage rare butterflies) and clearing hay (to help preserve a species-rich hay meadow.)

After about an hour and a half, the group go for a walk around the reserve guided by one of the Wildlife Trust staff.

According to Topham, feedback from the participants has been 'overwhelmingly positive'. 'A couple of them have said, "I'm sleeping better" or that they are enjoying the tasks or activity. You can see them blooming.'

'Go Wild, Stay Well' is the name and ethos of this project, run by the Taunton and West Somerset branch of Mind, in partnership with the Somerset Wildlife Trust. It is one of the many 'green exercise' projects (also known as 'green care' or 'ecotherapy') taking place around the UK as a treatment for mental health problems.

'Ecotherapy is just a posh way of saying "get into the natural environment, do something physical and you'll feel better about yourself,' says Topham. 'It's not complicated but it's very effective.'

Wild things

People have known for years that getting outside in nature makes you feel better, more relaxed and revived. Mind has taken this a step further by looking at how it can be used to treat mental health problems. Many local Mind associations have run green projects incorporating gardening, walking and conservation work for years.

Katy Prior, a spokesperson for Mind says:
'Green exercise has been proven to improve mental wellbeing, lifting mood and boosting self-esteem. Whether it's involvement in a horticultural development program, or an exercise program supervised by a therapist or even a rambling group, all can provide significant improvement to mental well being. Green care should be offered as an additional treatment option.'
Mental health charities estimate that one in four people in the UK will suffer a mental health problem at some point in our lives. The number of prescriptions made each year for antidepressants in England has doubled in a decade, (reaching 39.1 million in 2009) and a survey by the Mental Health Foundation found that 75 per cent of GPs have prescribed medication to people with long term depression believing another treatment would have been more appropriate.

On a wider scale, the World Health Organisation predicts that by 2020 depression will be second only to heart disease as an international health problem.

Green shoots

This is where green exercise comes in. Proponents say it is an accessible, cost-effective and natural addition to existing treatment options. But how available are these schemes - and does it really work?

At the moment, green exercise schemes are not widely available. Few GPs regard ecotherapy as a serious treatment - or they just wouldn't think of referring a patient to a local conservation project. Often no such schemes exist locally.

However, thanks to Ecominds, a £7.5 million lottery-funded grant scheme run by Mind, up to 130 local environmental projects are being given a funding boost. The Go Wild Stay Well project, which launched in July, received a grant of nearly £60,000.
© The Ecologist