Nature, the original National Health Service

30 Days Wild is a simple idea; get outside and see something, do something with nature every day during June.

On the first day, I listened to a robin singing. On the second day, my college class made charcoal and I took a walk in the woods.

Civilisation is but a flimsy dust sheet that we have thrown over a psyche rich in emotion and instinct, shaped by the living planet.
George Monbiot

For the vast majority of our history, humans have lived in, survived from and adapted to natural environments. The Industrial Revolution saw the start of urbanisation from the late eighteenth century and in 2014, 82% of the UK population lived in urban areas. More people internationally live in urban areas than rural areas – 54 per cent of the population of the world, up from 30 per cent in 1950. In 2050, 66 per cent of the population of the world is predicted to be urban.

While urbanisation has brought benefits such as improvements in public hygiene, education and economic opportunity, urbanisation has also led to an increase in mortality from diseases associated with lifestyle such as cancer, heart disease and obesity – known as the urban health penalty. Mental health disorders including anxiety and depression are estimated by the OECD to cost the UK economy £70bn per year.

Contact with nature promotes health and wellbeing. This is backed up by a growing body of anecdotal, theoretical and empirical evidence. It’s also just common sense. Even having nature in close proximity or just knowing it exists is important to people, whether or not they are regular ‘users’ of it. Hospital patients with a view of green space recover faster than those without. The biophilia hypothesis suggests, quite simply, that we’re hard-coded to be near to nature. We are living things who need to be surrounded by living things.

Green therapies can play a huge part in preventing lifestyle-related diseases as well as treating a range of other conditions, and assist in social issues such as community cohesion, offender rehabilitation and education. MIND lists a range of ‘ecotherapies’ or green therapies. Beneficial effects of green therapies include reducing stress, anxiety or depression, improved self-esteem, social contact, gaining new skills, boosting confidence, developing interests and making a positive contribution. Research suggests that green therapy has a role to play in upstream intervention through prevention of mental and physical ill health – you are less likely to get ill later if you’re enjoying nature now.

Working as part of a group to help conserve green spaces, environmental conservation adds more exercise as well as social bonding with fellow volunteers and a sense of well-being from having contributed to your community. It is also a good opportunity to learn new skills and develop new interests. London Wildlife Trust works with young adults with learning disabilities and engages ex-offenders in horticulture and conservation.

Social and Therapeutic Horticulture (STH) uses gardening and horticulture to bring about positive changes for those living with disabilities and ill-health or who are elderly, isolated, vulnerable or disadvantaged. STH can assist with recovery after illness, and slow down deterioration in those with degenerative illnesses. Thrive supports and promotes STH. Equine Therapy is used to treat those with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), anxiety, autism, cerebral palsy, dementia, depression, behavioural issues and PTSD.

Random acts of nature, ecotherapies, call them what you like. It starts with just being outside, walking, sitting somewhere green. During a period of illness last year, gardening and walking made a huge difference to me, and since then I have made more room for nature in my life, so much so that I’m changing career to work in conservation and the environment.

Like the NHS, nature is a service free to all at the point of use. Like the NHS, nature needs investment, support and protection from damaging interests that put profits before people. Along with Tony Juniper I’d like to see NHS funding directed towards nature for health, and conservation education in schools. I’d like to see a Nature and Wellbeing Act improve the status of species and habitats and place a higher value on nature in national decision-making. I’d love to see people who are doing 30 Days Wild just keep going, and more people realise just what brilliant fun conservation volunteering is.

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