What do woodland walks have to do with the budget of the NHS? It may seem like these are things from two very different worlds, but new research has highlighted an important link.
According to a study recently published by Forest Research, walks in UK woods could save £185m a year in mental health costs. The study combines data on woodland visitor numbers, the prevalence of mental health conditions and evidence that regular nature visits reduce depression and anxiety. The final figure is based on the role of woodland in alleviating mental illnesses, resulting in reduced costs to the NHS and employers.
A growing body of research has shown that spending time in a natural environment can have huge benefits for mental health. A 2019 study by the University of Exeter Medical School found that a two-hour “dose” of nature every week has a profound effect on health and wellbeing. Interestingly, the results seem to be the same regardless of whether there is an activity involved. Merely sitting and enjoying nature is apparently enough. What’s more, the study found that the benefits were the same across the board for young and old, wealthy and poor, and urban and rural people.
Many nature-lovers may think this is simple common sense, but sadly common sense doesn’t always factor in policy decisions. The new study by Forest Research is intended to inform policymakers and makes the case for continued investment in and expansion of the UK’s woodlands. Importantly, it is the first study of its kind to put a figure on the associated mental health benefits. And £185m is a sum no government can afford to ignore.
This figure was derived from the cost of various treatments, including visits to GPs, drug prescriptions, inpatient care and social services. It also includes costs based on estimates of the number of working days lost due to mental health issues. The researchers say they have used conservative estimates and believe the real cost could be even higher.
The research follows a number of schemes that have sought to tackle mental health issues by organising activities in nature, a treatment referred to as “green social prescribing”. These have included wildlife projects, arts and heritage events and exercise groups. The National Academy for Social Prescribing, launched in 2019 with funding from the Department of Health, now promotes such schemes on a national level.
In addition, the government recently awarded £5.5m to seven NHS care groups around the UK to test how nature can be used to improve mental health and wellbeing. This money will be put into projects such as tree planting and growing food. At the same time, the government still has a long way to go if it’s to keep its pledge of increasing tree planting to 30,000 hectares a year by 2024.
During lockdown many of us rediscovered the joy of being outdoors in nature. A walk in the woods provides time to reflect and can help us feel more connected to the world. Given how important woodlands are to both to our mental health and our climate, it is vital that we protect and expand these spaces and keep them accessible for all. The natural world must be valued, and not just financially.
If you are struggling with your mental health, find local sources of support on this website.