Out of the woods

Spending time in the open air could prove to be the perfect therapy for patients.

Spending time in the open air could prove to be the perfect therapy for patients.

I came to Nature Workshops from a background in health and social care after seeing a gap for a more holistic approach in the delivery of mental health services.

Based in Cornwall, it specialises in outdoor activities and events that encourage children and adults to engage and reconnect with the natural world, and experience the physical, mental and social benefits of time outside.

In 2013 the company received funding from Good from Woods for a project that took a group of adults with various mental health diagnoses, including schizophrenia, psychosis and depression, into local woodland for a six-week course of immersive activities designed to develop self-esteem and resilience.

Four men and two women attended – each referred by their health team. The course had a retention rate of more than 80% and everyone who completed it received a certificate of achievement. I knew that the course would be beneficial, yet the outcomes surpassed my expectations.

One of the more severely ill participants had a diagnosis of psychosis and at the time of attending the course was experiencing spells of disassociation, which I witnessed during a session. She had also had an abusive childhood and, at the time of referral, was being cared for by a relative.

After the course, she was able to come off her antipsychotic drugs on the advice of her GP. Speaking about the impact of the course, she said: ‘It will probably last me all my life quite frankly.’

Another participant, a 52-year-old man struggling with social anxiety issues arising from long-term substance addiction, found that the sessions helped to increase his sense of self-worth.

He said: ‘It was empowering and left me with a very good feel for being out in the woods and for being around people. I felt part of the group. During my 30 years in addiction I was always alone and the outsider. I’m really glad I did it.’

Before attending sessions with us he had undergone two stays in rehabilitation units. He was referred to our programme because he was already volunteering on conservation and gardening projects. He hopes to find employment soon.

Survival skills

Another participant said taking part in the programme had inspired him to continue spending time in nature. Each activity was developed to be iterative and participant-focused, and included survival skills, cooking over a fire and reflective play. We encouraged everyone attending to take inspiration from the woods and try their hand at creative tasks, such as wood carving.

One participant said: ‘I carved a wooden spoon from some cherry wood; it’s the sort of thing I wouldn’t have attempted before, but it was good for me to sit down and make the best wooden spoon I could.’

The programme’s effect on health and wellbeing was measured using the Warwick-Edinburgh mental wellbeing scale. Across our programmes we have found a 13% increase in wellbeing after attendance.

In addition, we took part in a citizen science project funded by Plymouth University, where we asked questions designed to explore issues with participants, their referrers and our staff before, during and after the activities. This allowed us to revisit baselines, hopes and expectations. Transcripts were coded using wellbeing indicators set by Good from Woods and this formed the basis of a report on outcomes.

Using these indicators and coded transcripts, the research shows that participants, referrers and staff found the sessions developed practical and personal skills, and helped participants to feel optimistic and increased their feelings of closeness to the natural world.

The whole experience, from organising to delivering the project proved to be inspirational. Everyone learned just how transformative time in nature can be for people with mental health issues.

Find out more

Nature Workshops. Email for a copy of the report.

Good from Woods

About the author

Jane Acton is a researcher at Nature Workshops.

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