Go Green to Beat the Blues
A few months ago, I spent two days with Mental Health First Aid England to become a qualified Mental Health First Aider. Those are two of the most valuable days I’ve spent anywhere.
Mental Health First Aiders are a point of contact if you, or someone you are concerned about, is experiencing a mental health issue or emotional distress. We’re not therapists or psychiatrists, but we can give you initial support and signpost you to appropriate help if it’s required.
It’s easy to forget that everyone has mental health – it’s more of a continuum than an absolute – and you can quickly find yourself on either end of the scale.
But what is good mental health? Well, the World Health Organisation defines it as:
“A state of wellbeing in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”
In all honestly, I’m more inclined to the deep end of the pool. Depression and anxiety have been around for me for such a long time that they’ve become dependable companions. I have a proclivity for rumination. I tend to see the risks in situations more than the positive outcomes. I’m endlessly self-critical.
In short, the voice in my head is an asshole.
There are two things that have helped me immeasurably when it comes to living with myself – “wherever you go, there you are”. The first is meditation. The second is hill walking.
While this website isn’t about meditation, I’d have just as many good things to say and could talk to you about it at length. It’s been transformational for me, a paradigm shift unlike any other, and if you’d like to find out more it would be my pleasure to have a chat about it with you.
This blog, however, is about walking. Happily, hill walking has been shown to have wonderful benefits for mental health. Remember, we’re not saying it’s going to solve all the problems, but it might be one factor in improving your position on the mental health continuum.
Long Live the Proleteriat!
2018 can feel a little like 1984 sometimes, can’t it? I don’t mean new episodes of Miami Vice and movies like Footloose, Karate Kid, Gremlins and Ghostbusters storming the Box Office. I mean more like George Orwell’s dystopian nightmare.
We all have the unenviable stress and pressure of wage slavery, which many of us attempt to self-medicate through post-work drinks, endlessly scrolling through social media without really knowing why, and wishing there was a more effective way of getting every milligram of caffeine into our sleep-deprived bodies.
The good news is that there’s a much cheaper and more natural remedy. Research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), conducted by Dr Valerie Gladwell at the University of Essex, demonstrated the power of the great outdoors to improve both physiological and psychological wellbeing:
“The value of nature has long been considered to be advantageous to human health. Early examples of this come in the form of urban parks established by wealthy philanthropists during the 19th century, and in the gardens incorporated into hospital designs. Our research supports this, demonstrating an association between improved health outcomes and engagement with surrounding ‘green space’.”
The research showed that just looking at slides of natural scenes could improve response and recovery from stressful tasks and that a simple walk in a green place led to better sleep the following night. Conversely, looking at city scenes had no such effect (therefore vindicating my aversion to London and proving once and for all that I’m not just miserable – London is scientifically awful).
I must admit, I was incredibly surprised to find just how much Ordnance Survey have done to promote healthy behaviours like these. Their challenge to us: what could you do with an hour a day? That’s all you need to get started and see benefits. One hour outside a day. What’s more, their apps for iOS and Android have a Greenspace map layer to help you easily identify parks and other local greenspaces.
You don’t have to walk for miles to feel the benefits. You don’t even have to go near hills. But imagine, if one our a day outside can do so much to benefit your mental health, how much better would regularly getting out into your closest National Park be? There are loads of them.
Another study showed that as little as 80 minutes of hill walking may reduce the risk of early death by around 10%. If you don’t have hills on your doorstep, make that 120 minutes of brisk walking around your local greenspace.
Of course, we’re here to talk about mental health and while reducing your risk of death by 10% is a noble cause, the quality of your life matters just as much as the longevity of it. The study mentioned above by the University of Essex showed that over 71% of participants felt less depressed after the country walk compared to 22% who reported an increase in feelings of depression after an urban walk.
It’s wonderful to see MIND, the mental health charity, still championing their green agenda. People have been advocating that we should all ‘get outside a bit more’ for as long as I can remember, but championing the great outdoors as a therapy in its own right is nothing but good news. Ecotherapy involves getting outdoors and getting active in a green environment as a way of boosting mental wellbeing – it’s not just good advice, it’s a clinically valid treatment option for GPs when assisting patients with mental ill health.
For the Men
Finally, for the men. I know, because I’m one of you, that it’s difficult to talk about mental health. You’re supposed to embody strength, dominate positions of power, and be the hunter-gatherer (this is what we call grocery shopping in my house). You’re supposed to balance that with being the strong and silent type, whilst showing no weakness. You can’t openly talk about mental health or stress online without a keyboard warrior branding you a ‘triggered snowflake’ and looking your best buddy in the eyes over a nice hot chocolate is just going to be dreadful.
And that’s why you should get outside with your mates. There are no keyboard warriors out there. If you’ve got a Jetboil, you can even keep the hot chocolate. You and your mates can just have a stroll and a chat… sometimes that chat can be about PlayStation games and Netflix, but other times it might give you the opportunity to actually help someone. Men are far more comfortable talking to each other when there’s something else to address. If you sit us facing each other and make us talk, we’ll forget how to use words. Put us in a car, both facing forward, or walking through some terrific scenery and navigating puddles of cow excrement, and it’s an entirely different story.
You could even turn walking into Walking+. The Peak District is renowned as a great place to go wreck hunting. Many aircraft wreck sites dating back to World War II can still be found on remote hillsides and moorlands. With a decent GPS and a bit of outdoors savvy, you can find yourself seeking out Lancaster, Dakota, Sabre, Gladiator, Meteor and Superfortress. All the while, you can start that conversation with your mate with three very simple words: “How’s it going?”
Facts About Mental Health
- The latest estimates from the Labour Force Survey show the total number of cases of work related stress, depression or anxiety in 2015/16 was 488,000 cases.
- British firms are losing on average 27.5 days of productive time per employee each year because of sickness, according to a report from Britain’s Healthiest Workplace.
- Women are more likely than men to report that their stress levels are on the rise.
- The Centre for Mental Health calculated that presenteeism from mental ill health alone, costs the UK economy £15.1 billion per annum.
- Mental ill health is responsible for 91 million working days lost and costs £30 billion each year, more than for any other illness.