This year’s Mental Health Awareness Week runs from 10-16 May and the theme is ‘Connect with Nature’.
Hosted by the Mental Health Foundation, the week offers an opportunity for people to talk about all aspects of mental health, with a focus on empowering individuals to improve their own mental health and to support others to do the same.
One of the Foundation’s aims is to inspire more people to connect with nature in new ways, noticing the impact that this connection can have on their mental health. It advocates at all levels that access to and quality of nature is a mental health and social justice issue as well as an environmental one.
From looking after indoor plants and growing vegetable patches, to feeding birds and building bug houses, there are many ways you can bring nature into your school environment. By taking lessons outside and even by watching nature programmes, you can create opportunities to connect with nature in a meaningful way. You can support and encourage students to look after not only their physical health but their mental health and wellbeing too!
So, what do we mean by connecting with nature?
Connecting with nature is not just about the amount of time we are spending outdoors; it is also about building a relationship with nature by noticing and becoming sensitive to what is around us. We use our senses to do this – such as noticing the movement of the clouds and listening to the birds chirping in the trees.
Research shows that the relationship we develop with nature is emerging as an important protective factor for our mental health. With one in six children and young people aged five to 16 being identified as having a diagnosable mental health condition and 40% of young people feeling more anxious than they did before the pandemic, it is important to explore various ways of supporting students' mental health and wellbeing.
Providing opportunities to connect with nature is just one way to do this. The Mental Health Foundation’s ‘Mental Health in the Pandemic’ study found that during the COVID-19 pandemic, spending time outdoors was one of the most commonly mentioned coping mechanisms.1 Research suggests that time spent in blue (i.e. aquatic and marine environments) and/or green spaces is increasingly linked to improved life satisfaction, reduced anxiety and increased happiness.2
‘Being outside, amongst plants and trees, amidst nature, helps control our emotions and fills us with a newfound energy. During the last lockdown, being stuck at home all the time, I became very short tempered, snappy and hostile, but after I started going outside and spending time walking in the park or beside canals, I became much happier and returned to my old self.’ Student from St Mungo’s High School, Scotland.
For some members of your school community, there may be circumstances that limit their access to nature, such as a lack of green spaces in the local area or a health condition that restricts their movement. Within school, you have an opportunity to build a nurturing and supportive mental health environment. Part of this will be ensuring all students have access and opportunities to connect with nature – mitigating against the inequalities some individuals face when trying to interact with nature.
As well as setting up whole-school opportunities to connect with nature, such as organising a litter clean-up of the school grounds or local park, or signing up to the RSPB Big Schools’ Birdwatch, it is important to empower students to take individual action as well. This could be encouraging them to pick up one piece of litter a day or to take an active role in campaigning for environmental change. It is important that students feel listened to and believe they can make their own choices about how to connect with nature.
No matter how much or how little your school currently does to promote good mental health, you can always try new ways to inspire both staff and students to look after their mental health and wellbeing. Bringing nature in is one way to do this!
During Mental Health Awareness Week, the Mental Health Foundation encourages you to:
Experience nature: Take time to recognise and grow your connection with nature during the week.
Share nature: Take a photo, video, or sound recording and share the connections you’ve made during the week to inspire others. Join the discussion on how you’re connecting with nature by using the hashtags #ConnectWithNature #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek.
Talk about nature: Use the Foundation’s tips, school packs and research to discuss in your family, school and community how you can help encourage people to find new ways to connect with nature.
To find out more about how you and your school can get involved with Mental Health Awareness Week or to download the Foundation’s Connect with Nature school pack (available from 26 April 2021), visit www.mentalhealth.org.uk/mhaw.
1. Mental Health Foundation. (2020). 'Coronavirus: The divergence of mental health experiences during the pandemic.'
2. McMahan, E. A., & Estes, D. (2015). 'The effect of contact with natural environments on positive and negative affect: A meta-analysis.' The Journal of Positive Psychology, 10(6), 507–519. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2014.994224