Perhaps unsurprisingly for anyone who knows or engages with me on social media, I am delighted that the theme for Mental Health Awareness Week is nature.
The positive impact of nature on our wellbeing is well documented. Being in and amongst wildlife is calming, and an antidote to the stresses and strains of everyday life and has a lasting impact.
The Mental Health Foundation who coordinate Mental Health Awareness Week have done research which has shown just how important being outside and connecting with nature has been during the pandemic.
Their research shows that going for walks was one of our top coping strategies, and 45% of us reported that being in green spaces had been vital for our mental health. It certainly was for mine. Webcam views of wildlife spiked enormously. Other research also suggests that as we spent more time with nature we noticed it more.
Even though I have been a city dweller for almost 30 years, I am a country boy at heart. I feel extraordinarily lucky to grow up in North Cornwall in the 70s and 80s with the freedom to spend long days playing in rivers, roaming Bodmin Moor and messing around in the mud.
When I was about ten years old, a local farmer, Mr Smeeth was kind enough to lend me a pony. In return I would help him with any job he would let me do including spending time sitting with Mrs Smeeth, who was the first person I recall meeting with a mental illness.
Mr and Mrs Smeeth taught about trees, butterflies, fish, hedgerows and horses, flowers and plants. They would encourage me to look at the sunrise or the sunset, to the dew on the early morning grass and the shape of spider’s webs. Mr Smeeth would say people did not pay enough attention to the beauty around them.
As a child when I got upset, confused or angry being outside, preferably with animals, soothed me. And the same is true now. I lived with my parents for six months over the last year when my Mum was diagnosed with terminal cancer. It was a difficult time. Being outside in nature was important for all of us. Mum, Dad and I would drive to see the sea and watch the tides and waves. I would go walking and running through the country lanes, visit some miniature ponies nearby or go on long coast walks. Being outside was – and is – soothing.
And whilst I may be a country boy at heart wherever we live – the city, the suburbs or the countryside – there is lots to be in awe of; the amazing shapes of trees, different coloured leaves, a vast array of flowers, beetles, spiders and insects or frogs, birds and butterflies.
When I was travelling to the office most days before Covid-19 I intentionally looked at the views across Tower Bridge into Canary Wharf, and up and down the Thames. I would also set myself a challenge to spot something different – a building, a flower, or a unique reflection of light – on each commute.
Mr Smeeth’s observation that many of us did not pay enough attention to the beauty around us was long before mobile phones. I can only imagine what he would say now. Our phones are amazing. We can be talking to people, writing an email or listening to podcasts as we go. They have also inevitably changed our engagement with the world around us.
Whilst I am not commuting to the office each day, I have been making some deliberate efforts to walk and run without my phone as part of switching off from work and self-care. The main thing I notice is that I hear, listen and see much more of that which is around me, and it gives me great joy.
Along with the MHFA England team, I will be posting some of my favourite pictures on Instagram and Twitter with the hashtag #ConnectWithNature. I would love to see yours too.This Mental Health Awareness Week, MHFA England is celebrating #MyWholeSelf in the great outdoors. Share a My Whole Selfie and show us how you #ConnectWithNature.