Positive Mental Health – Get Out Into Nature

This week (10-16 May) is Mental Health Awareness Week and this years’ theme is ‘nature’. This theme is particularly close to my heart as I set up the OutdoorDadNI initiative to look at the connections between the outdoors and positive mental health.

After this year of multiple lockdowns, working from home, Zoom calls, home-schooling and toilet paper panic buying we need to be outside now more than ever. There has been a renewed focus on the power of nature and the outdoors over the past year and among many things recent research has shown: 

  • Time in nature – even 20 minute – can lower levels of cortisol which is a common stress marker.
  • Exposure to ‘green exercise’ can improve self-esteem and mood which are both indicators of mental health.
  • Walking in nature lowers blood pressure and the average heart rate. 
  • The outdoors can help strengthen the immune system, calm the mind & help restore focus. 
  • Even looking at a picture of nature or listening to a recording can have a positive effect on our mental health. 

With these positive benefits in mind I thought it might be useful to make a few of my own recommendations on how to best use the outdoors:  

Prescribe yourself some nature 

Doctors in the Shetland Islands have been prescribing ‘nature prescriptions‘ (birdwatching, rambling and beach walks in the Atlantic winds) since 2018 to patients to help treat mental illness, diabetes, heart disease, stress and other conditions. Also known as ‘green prescribing’, this involves the use of nature-based activities for improving the physical and mental health of individuals. Common activities include walking and cycling in nature, conservation activities, horticulture and meditation. The UK government recently launched a multi million pound pilot project last year as it has recognised that “the COVID-19 pandemic has made many more of us aware of how much we value and rely on outdoor spaces to support our health and wellbeing.” For more inspiration on the benefits of the mountains and in particular their power to change lives, it’s well worth checking out the Mountains for the Mind initiative lead by Trail Magazine or a course at Tollymore outdoor centre. One thing to note is that researchers from the University of Exeter have recently found nature is associated with a number of benefits but only if people chose to visit these places themselves. So get self-prescribing!

Go on an Microadventure 

A micro adventure is “small and achievable, for normal people with real lives”.  The concept was made popular by the author and adventurer Alastair Humphreys through his excellent book focusing on discovering local great escapes.  It’s full of ideas on how to get outdoors quickly, safely and easily. The outdoor company Alpkit now even have a ‘Microadventure Bivvy Bundle’ to get you started. 

Get on, in or near the water 

Coastal environments have been shown to improve our health, body and mind. There is something special about being out on or in the water. There has been a huge growth in open water swimming and cold water therapy through the Wim Hof method over the past year. For me personally, I recommend surfing, kayaking and especially getting on the water with a Stand Up Paddle (SUP) Board. It’s a great accessible way of getting on the water and there are plenty of excellent local organisations to help you get out safely: Far and Wild, SUP Hub NI, Strangford Lough Activity Centre, Active Adventures NI, Long Line Surf School to name only a few.

Try Forest Bathing

This one doesn’t need a wetsuit. Go out to your nearest forest (the Woodland Trust have a useful woodland finder) and try some Forest Bathing.  Otherwise known as Shinrin-Yoku, this practice originated in Japan in the 1980s following scientific studies by the Japanese government.  The research has shown that 2 hours of mindful exploration in a forest reduces blood pressure & lowers cortisol. Trees release phytoncides, which have an anti-microbial effect on human bodies, boosting the immune system.  Research from the University of Derby found that improving a person’s connection with nature through this form of ‘nature therapy’ led to significant increases in their wellbeing.

Start small

Getting inspired by nature isn’t just about climbing mountains or coasteering off cliffs (although both are fun!) you can also start small by; reading a good book by Robert McFarlaneTristan Gooley or poetry by Mary Oliver or by exploring the hidden spots in your local area on an OS Map or just try a local Parkrun when they come back. 

Have fun, layer up, buy good socks, enjoy the rain and try to laugh like a toddler in a puddle.

Enda Young is a Programme Director at the William J Clinton Leadership Institute at Queen’s University Belfast, a Trustee for Lighthouse suicide prevention charity and an Accredited Practitioner of the Institute for Outdoor Learning.  

Why OutdoorDadNI?

Welcome to OutdoordadNI!  Over the coming weeks and months, I plan to publish articles focusing on being a Dad, and using the outdoors to encourage positive mental health.  

My wife and our two children (a wee 3 month old girl and a 3 year old boy) moved to the countryside in the northern Sperrin Mountains last year. This initiative is in part, a way for me to focus in trying to breathe new life into an old farm, and help us focus on how to best use the place we now call “home”.

Why this blog?

The statistics are well publicised. 305 died by suicide in Northern Ireland during 2017. That amounts to six deaths a week. The suicide rate for men, as well as for women, is higher in Northern Ireland than anywhere else in the UK or Ireland.  This is a particularly brutal statistic, as suicide is the single biggest cause of death for men under the age of 45 in the UK.

My friend became part of those brutal statistics on a Sunday three years ago. This initiative is part of my way of trying to honour his memory. 

Last year, I became a director and board member of a brilliant suicide prevention charity, Lighthouse.   In some small way I also hope to raise awareness of their work through this initiative.  

If one person reads one post, or sees an Instagram image that can lead them to consider reaching out for support just once, then this blog will have been worth it. 

Why the outdoors?

Doctors in Scotland have started to prescribe nature as a treatment for their patients.Forest Europe has found that there is a lot of evidence that forests boost mental health wellbeing. New initiatives such as Mountains For the Mind have started as it’s been scientifically proven that spending time in the great outdoors is a powerful natural anti-depressant, and regular exercise can reduce the risk of depression by 30%. Being outside and being active is by no means the entire answer for positive mental health, but it can be an important part of the solution. 

Why me?

I fell in love with white water kayaking during my undergrad at Queen’s University Belfast, ended up president of the canoe club and worked in Tiso, an outdoor gear shop. I’m a self-confessed outdoor gear geek, so expect some gear reviews up here! 

I got the outdoor bug and through my MA looked at the use of outdoor experiential learning as a tool for conflict transformation.  I paid my way through this MA by working as the Good Relations Officer at the Belfast Activity Centre and spent weeks in South Africa looking at how organisations like Outward Bound use outdoor learning for peacebuilding.  Over a decade ago I became a kayak coach, obtained my Accredited Practitioner for the Institute for Outdoor Learning and became a Leave no Trace trainer. 

Last Christmas I was reminded of my love for the outdoors by Alastair Humphrey’s fantastic Microadventures book.  It reminded me of who I am and helped me focus on what kind of Dad I want to be.  I want my children to grow up knowing muck under their boots and the power of the outdoors to improve their own mental wellbeing.  

What’s next? 

I work full time as a Programme Director at the Leadership Institute at Queens University Belfast and I have a passion for mediation, negotiation and conflict resolution.  OutdoordadNI is a passion project, so I’ll be updating Instagram regularly, Twitter sometimes and this blog when I can. 

I’d really appreciate any thoughts so please leave a comment below and let me know what you think!

Looking forward to seeing where this goes. 

Enda

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