Mental health charity promotes benefits of contact with nature

Dave Urwin, a charity worker in the South West is promoting ‘ecotherapy’ as a positive way to maintain mental health

UK mental health charity Mind has always campaigned for greater understanding of mental health issues. Now, through an experimental new project, Dave Urwin, a PR & fundraising co-coordinator at Mind in Taunton and West Somerset (Mind TWS),  is using the therapeutic benefits of nature to help people with mental health problems.

Mental health has long been an issue plagued by social stigma, despite one in four people personally experiencing the problem at some stage during their lifetime. When portrayed negatively in the media, it can leave sufferers feeling marginalised by society.

Urwin originally joined Mind as a volunteer, before being taken on as an employee two years ago. His own previous experience of depression and low self-esteem have been integral in understanding the affliction of mental health problems and he now strives to help others with similar issues.

An experimental project, which Urwin has recently helped coordinate in his region, is now enabling people coping with mental distress to take part in conservation work. The Go Wild, Stay Well initiative is taking place across a variety of nature reserves in the Quantocks and Blackdown Hills.

Urwin explains what is involved: “It is a collaboration with Somerset Wildlife Trust, and during each session an employee of theirs will take the participants for a walk around the reserve, explaining about the different species of flora and fauna they see.

“We also have a project entitled Grow Well, which is in partnership with the Langley House Trust, and enables people experiencing mental distress to take part in horticultural activities.”

The projects are examples of ecotherapy, where the therapeutic benefits of nature are used to help relieve anxiety. Project manager Dave Topham explains however that ecotherapy is, “just a posh way of saying, ‘Get out into the natural environment, do something physical and you’ll feel better about yourself.’ It’s not complicated, but it’s very effective.”

Urwin believes that the drive behind ecotherapy is a reaction against a technologically obsessed culture, which not only encourages detachment from the natural world, but also has a noticeable and often adverse effect on mental and physical wellbeing. What makes the prospect of ecotherapy so attractive, he says, is the opportunity to take a step back from fast-paced society and get back in touch with nature. “Personally, I find that running or walking outdoors for an hour after even the most stressful day always helps to make me feel more at ease.”

Urwin has also recently led the Walk on the Wild Side challenge; a fundraising activity that saw 5 participants complete a 30 mile walk on the Quantocks, with 11 more joining them at the halfway point. Through their combined efforts, the participants raised just over £4,000, an achievement that Urwin admits was both incredibly rewarding and empowering in light of his own past battles with depression.

Urwin also speaks of how uplifting the experience had been for the other participants. “On the day there was a wonderful sense of camaraderie, everyone completed the challenge and the weather was kind to us. The walk was through stunning scenery, and allowed people from different walks of life to join together and share a powerful sense of achievement through a common goal.”

The next fundraising challenge for Urwin is the Somerset Levels and Moors marathon on 10 September, which coincides with his 30th birthday and will be his first official marathon. “I find that running longer distances is packed with metaphors for life. You will usually experience low points during a marathon, but if you stay strong in the mind and keep going then more often than not you will come out of the slump.”

Urwin is also setting up a running group with a colleague, which he hopes will allow people to gain confidence by reaching realistic goals. He also hopes it will give people a safe environment in which to have fun and meet others. “The social element of a number of our projects is one of the things people find most beneficial.”

Mind TWS is planning a conference in February, showcasing the important work it has done so far in raising awareness of mental health.