Connecting with Nature: Q&A for Mental Health Awareness Week
Updated: May 18, 2021
According to Young Minds, "1 in 6 young people aged 16-24 has symptoms of a common mental disorder such as depression or an anxiety disorder." The overwhelming uncertainty and isolation of the last year definitely hasn't helped. In early May the BBC reported on new ONS data, which showed that "rates of depressive symptoms more than doubled in adults aged 16 to 39 years old" when compared to pre-pandemic rates. While we've been focusing our energy on keeping our bodies safe from the coronavirus, it's sometimes easy to forget that maintaining good mental health is also vitally important, and can often be harder than just putting a mask on when we head into town.
One of the best ways to end the stigma around mental health is to talk about it, a key goal of Mental Health Awareness Week. This year's theme is "Connecting with Nature," and having spent much of our relationship bonding over being in nature, we wanted to write something. We also invited Ashlynn to join our Q&A and have included quotes from friends at the end of the article about nature and mental health.
We recognise that not everyone has the same access to quality nature, nor the privilege we have to feel safe and welcome in outdoor spaces. We are educating ourselves on how to make these spaces and communities more inclusive, so that the mental health benefits of nature can be felt by everyone, not just those that have traditionally been represented in these spaces.
We hope this Q&A helps inspire you to talk to your friends and family about mental health, or just to get outside and think about how your relationship with nature helps support your mental wellbeing.
Q: How do you define Nature?
Veronica: This question was actually a lot harder than I thought it would be...To me, nature is soft grass underfoot or the sea caressing the sand in a hidden cove. It’s the full branches of trees whispering in the wind above me or a group of goslings swimming after their mother. It’s where I can touch the soil or watch flowers burst to life in Spring. Nature can be magical, beautiful and calming, but can also be immensely powerful. Despite this power, nature is vulnerable and needs protection from human’s destructive forces.
Brett: “Nature” is a place where the buzz of human activity is quiet compared to the buzz of flora and fauna activity.
Ashlynn: Nature is somewhere that I can breathe. Somewhere I can forget about all the stress of city life and people. Somewhere with beautiful views, birds chirping, the breeze on my skin. Somewhere I can be my happiest self. My biggest hope is that my children and their children will be able to share this same connection with nature that we are lucky enough to have.
Q: How does being in nature impact your mental health?
Veronica: I remember a specific time during exam season in my second year at university – after having a breakdown over a past paper, I realised crying over my revision notes wasn’t doing me any good. I grabbed my camera and went for a walk along a nearby river. Being outside, surrounded by plants that were bathed in the warm light of golden hour, I was able to breathe deeply again and stop myself from spiralling deeper into my negative thoughts. Since then, I have realised how important being in nature is for my mental health – even if it’s just for a short walk under some trees when I’m feeling stressed. Being in nature also helps me put down my phone and enjoy my surroundings. Immersed in the new life of spring, the sunshine on the coast or the cold water at Vlietland, I am able to escape from the things that are worrying me and feel more at peace.
Brett: Stuck at home, my thoughts spiral downward. Being in nature combats this predisposition. As soon as I’m in nature, for some inexplicable reason, I am satisfied with my standing in the world, my thoughts are constructive, and I feel good.
Ashlynn: Having lived in the city centres of Paris, Seoul and Sydney, I am familiar with the feeling of being claustrophobic from only being surrounded by buildings. I am conscious when I feel this and I ensure that I take a day, or even just a few hours, to get out of the city and look out over the ocean, climb a hill, or experience whatever the nearest spot nature can offer me. Multiple times I have felt a physical lightening that allows me to appreciate the calmness of the world around me. I feel this improvement on my mental health for days to come. Being in nature allows me to realise how much beauty there is in this world, how much there still is for me to see. This always puts my greatest worries into perspective, filling me with dreams and desires and leaving no space for anxiety and stress. Hiking has really helped me escape lockdown worries and the events of the past months, allowing me to grow as a person in my independence, strength and happiness.
Q: Where and how do you like to connect with nature?
Veronica: One of the ways I like to connect with nature is by taking self portraits. Running barefoot through the sand or scrambling up rocks by a waterfall, with just a summer dress to protect me from the cold, I feel closer to Mother Earth. I also love hiking, camping and wild swimming, or just wandering through local green spaces if there isn’t time to go further afield.
Brett: You know that sense of freedom that you feel as Summer approaches? I’ve learned to quickly act on that feeling and get outdoors ASAP. Otherwise, given enough time to mull the decision, I deny myself the opportunity by finding excuses to not go. To combat my "paralysis by analysis," I trust my gut feelings and get outside before my brain can take issue. Hiking and running are my preferred modes of connecting with nature. I prefer sweeping vistas, but I’m not picky – the local tow path will do.
Ashlynn: The ocean will always be my biggest love. Feeling the water on my skin, seeing the life below. I can’t not mention solo hiking though. Being out in the wilderness alone I can feel an energy I have never felt from being with others, or from being in the city. This, for me, is when I feel most connected with nature.
Q: How has your connection with nature changed over the last year?
Veronica: Many aspects about this last year have been tough. Graduating in the middle of a pandemic, visa worries and being separated from friends and family have all had an impact on my mental health, and I have struggled at times. Looking back over the year, the days spent in nature stand out as highlights. Whether it was hiking the South West Coast Path with Brett, laughing with friends by a campfire at Dreda’s farm or just cycling through the forests near Voorschoten, being in nature helped me disconnect from the things in my life that were stressing me out. As a result, my connection with nature has grown and I have learnt to place more value on the time I get to spend outside. 2020 was the first time in years that I have spent so much time hiking and camping, and I am looking forward to sleeping under the stars again this summer. More recently, I’ve taken up wild swimming, and while I’m still not completely used to the cold, it’s getting easier and I can tell it will offer me a whole new way of connecting with nature.
Brett: The consecutive lockdowns took their toll – my connection to nature languished in the absence of outdoor experiences. I know in my heart that I should be going outside more often, but the physical and mental effort required seems overwhelming. However, I’m hopeful that this feeling is temporary – a series of trips in the near future will remedy my malaise!
Ashlynn: My appreciation of nature has certainly increased over the past months. Being in lockdown in Glasgow, my options were limited, but I visited my local park – Kelvingrove – almost every day. I have decided that it is the most beautiful park I have ever been to, and it has a very special place in my heart. A friend once joked that I should get a tattoo of it as I love it that much. Sitting on the hill with my friends, or jumping the fence to sit along the wild river by myself, or even just walking through it to get to the library, I can always find happiness there. I realised that if it were not for that park I would probably have left Glasgow. I would have gotten too claustrophobic being stuck in the city. I need that space where I can just lay in the grass and relax. This realisation really showed me how important nature is to me, I would not be who I am today without it.
We asked some of our friends how they like to connect with nature to benefit their mental health and these were their responses:
"I get lost. I like to just wander and not have any strict plan for where I need to be and when. I love getting lost because the rest of my life is so heavily structured, it's nice to break away from that and feel like I have full autonomy over my life." – Lucy
"For me, connecting with nature is the most important thing for my mental health. It reminds me that we are all just part of nature and any problem you have, big or small, never seems quite so insurmountable when you’re walking through valleys, up mountains or through fields. Every morning, after a workout, I go for a 25-30 minute walk. This is my favourite time of the day because I switch off and just breathe!" – Orla
"I would say that for me getting in the cold water is like a total reset. It brings my mind and body into the same space and there’s nothing like the warm afterglow (before the chills set in!)" – Dreda
"Some people get excited about summer because they can put away their sweaters, take out their bathing suits, or try on a new sundress. I get excited because I can take off my shoes...My mom always yelled at me for walking outside barefoot, whether in the front lawn, the back woods, or even just down the driveway. She didn't want me to track in dirt, which, to be fair, I usually did. But there was (is) something so wonderful about being able to walk outside and feel the grass, or the sand, or the mud between my toes. I've even walked barefoot in the snow. Besides our own homes, shoes are everywhere. We wear them at school, at work, even at play. We're the only animal that does. So the independence of being able to walk outside barefoot and breathe the fresh air, feel the sun rays on my skin, it's more than just being too lazy to put on shoes. It's empowering, it's calming, it's connection." – Payton
"For me it’s easy, I have a dog. My dog requires that I take her out every day. I’m fortunate enough to not live in a very urban setting, so we have plenty of green space in our Dutch village. Today, for instance, I saw my first set of cygnets of the season. I think that my ability to get outside every day and enjoy some green space and birds (and neighbour’s dogs) has helped me a lot in coping with the isolation from many of my friends over the last year." – Melissa
"Paragliding is great because you see nature from a viewpoint you never normally get to see it from. Nature keeps you alive – you’re relying on the air uplift, the drafts, the adiabatic lift off the ridges to keep you in the air. When I'm in the sky, when I'm flying, I feel close to nature. You look down and you see birds circling – you’re watching them hunt from above. That’s a neat way to connect with nature." – James
"Living in a small village in the Scottish countryside, I have the pleasure of being surrounded by nature and her wonderful gifts. It only takes a 5 minute walk to find myself completely engulfed by trees and birdsong. Whenever my mind feels heavy and foggy, filled with negativity, I head out to the forest to let the fresh air fill my lungs and regain some peace." – Lois
"I like to connect with nature when the weather is in full force. When waves in the sea push you about and you've got to lean into the wind to avoid getting blown over." – Peter
"Particularly over this past year I have enjoyed making time for escapist cycle rides. Often alone, sometimes with friends. Always out of the city, frequently down to the sea – to pause at the shore and listen to the waves. Sometimes out down quiet tracks in the country, taking in the fresh-green air and resting for lunch at secluded spots – and quietly watch the world breathe." – Paul
"There are so many things to see, hear and smell outside that you can forget about everything else and become immersed in nature. The beauty of seeing the change in seasons also reminds me that things will get better." – Fiona
Thank you to everyone who shared their thoughts with us ♥
If you are struggling with your mental health right now, know that you are not alone. Please reach out to us, someone you know or a trained professional to talk about how you are feeling. You don't have to carry this burden on your own. And if it helps you, switch off your laptop or phone and head outside. Immerse yourself in nature wherever you can.
Mental Health Awareness Week: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/campaigns/mental-health-awareness-week
Tips for connecting with nature to improve your mental health: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/campaigns/mental-health-awareness-week/tips
How connecting with nature benefits our mental health: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/sites/default/files/MHAW21_NATURE%20REPORT_ENG_web.pdf
Racial and economic disparities in access to nature: https://www.ramblers.org.uk/news/latest-news/2020/september/the-grass-isnt-greener-for-everyone.aspx
Anti-racism in the outdoors resources guide: https://www.publicgardens.org/resources/anti-racism-outdoors-resource-guide
Nature and mental health: An ecosystem service perspective: https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/5/7/eaax0903
Mental health resources:
Support helpline (United Kingdom): Call 116 123 or visit https://www.samaritans.org/
Suicide helpline (Netherlands): Call 113 or visit https://www.113.nl/english
Advice for helping someone with a mental health problem: https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/helping-someone-else/