Nature can be a place for mental restoration and inspiration. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many people have turned to nature for support in coping with isolation, stress, and uncertainty.
Our experience in nature can be restorative and therapeutic. Being in nature can be purposeless, helping us to let go of inner stress and let us be ourselves without any specific task to perform or goal in mind. Nature also provides sublime experiences of varying character; a flowerbed visited yesterday can give a new world of senses and input tomorrow.
In past decades, an increasing amount of research has highlighted the multiple benefits of nature for physical, mental, and social health (see reviews by WHO 2016, van den Bosch and Sang 2017, Wolf et al. 2020). Potential pathways linking nature to health relate to reducing harm (e.g. reducing exposure to noise or air pollution), restoring capacities (e.g. stress recovery, attention restoration), and building capacities (e.g. enhancing social cohesion) (Markevych et al. 2017).
The connection between nature’s health and human health has also gained increasing attention worldwide with the introduction of global initiatives such as the One Health Agenda, the Planetary Health Alliance, and the Healthy Parks Healthy People Movement. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has further highlighted the importance of this connection by bringing nature to the forefront of public health, as urbanites seek refuge in nature for individual and collective wellness – while ironically, human interference with nature may have created the conditions for the COVID-19 outbreak.
Nature and mental health: green prescriptions
In British Columbia (BC), Canada, the BC Park Foundation’s PaRx initiative captures the essence of the people-nature connection for improved health and wellbeing. It is the country’s first national nature prescription program which is supported by BC Family Doctors and Nurses and Nurse Practitioners of BC. This initiative was launched in December 2020, and any licensed health-care professional can now sign up for PaRx.org to receive instructions and practical resources for providing green prescriptions. The Director of PaRx, Dr Melissa Lem, is a renowned communicator of nature and wellbeing, as well as an expert on the inter-connected challenges threatening planetary and human health, including climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Other countries have also introduced green prescriptions, for example, the park prescriptions program run through the ParkRx.org hub in the United States (find out more by reading Green4C factsheet on this case study), and the recently launched national green prescribing pilot program in the United Kingdom that is using ‘test and learn sites’ to assess how connecting people with nature can improve mental wellbeing. Green4C is showcasing some of these initiatives, for more case studies visit: greenforcare.eu/case-studies/.
Nature prescriptions have become increasingly recognised as a valid intervention to promote health and wellbeing. This is expected to generate a diversity of novel practices and initiatives, both at the local and global levels. One example from British Columbia, Canada, is the Nature Therapy programme that is offered for free to health workers with pandemic related stress. This initiative, coordinated by the BC Park Foundation, aims to provide up to 10,000 health-care workers with free, guided “forest bathing” sessions offered in partnership with the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy Guides (ANFT). Sessions for nurses and family doctors are coordinated by the Chair of the ANFT Canadian Council, Ronna Schneberger, and planned for every weekend starting in January 2021. Canadians have been invited to donate, with a specific nurse or family doctor in mind, as a way to offer them a forest therapy session in gratitude for enduring the pandemic-related workload.
Nature and mental health: the University of British Columbia
At the University of British Columbia (UBC), pioneering initiatives are also taking place, both in urban and rural settings, to strengthen the research and practice of connecting nature and people for wellbeing. One of these initiatives is the course on ‘urban forests and well-being’ taught at the Faculty of Forestry as part of the recently launched Bachelor of Urban Forestry programme. This course focuses specifically on the role urban forests can play in building healthy cities and supporting well-being in a holistic way. The course was co-developed by Dr Matilda van den Bosch and has been further developed and taught on-line by Dr Tahia Devisscher. About 90 students from different UBC faculties and more than five countries have been taking this course each year since it was introduced four years ago. The students are expected to be employed in the urban planning and urban forestry sectors, contributing to stronger collaborations with the health care sector.
Another initiative coordinated within the UBC Faculty of Forestry is the Multidisciplinary Institute of Nature Therapy established in 2019 with the objective of addressing the knowledge gap of how forest therapy activities impact physiological and psychological processes. Dr Guangyu Wang is leading the new projects started by the Institute. Also linked to the UBC Faculty of Forestry, Dr Devisscher and graduate student Claire Hicks have been working with a team at the UBC Malcolm Knapp Research Forest in Maple Ridge to develop a self-guided Mindfulness Trail. This trail, which has been designed to offer users a nature-based wellness experience, combines practices inspired by forest bathing, yoga and mindfulness. The idea of the trail is first to offer students at the university an experience to reduce stress during the Spring and Fall field camps. In addition, the trail is available to all visitors staying at the Maple Ridge’s Loon Lake Lodge & Retreat Centre.
Finally, the Department of Psychiatry at the UBC Faculty of Medicine is working on a student E-Mental Health Screening project conducted in different Canadian sites. In addition to a stratified screening, Dr Daniel Vigo and his lab are developing a mental health e-tool that will facilitate behavioral changes among university students by reducing stress, anxiety, and depression through evidence-based psychosocial interventions. To effectively diminish the harms associated with common mental problems and substance use, as well as to promote resilience and social connections, this e-tool is being co-developed with UBC student groups. One of the components of this e-tool will include virtual immersions in forests using 360° imagery. Dr Vigo and Dr Devisscher are collaborating on creating these virtual experiences using audiovisuals that will take students on a journey of mindfulness and relaxation in nature.
Tahia Devisscher – 1,
Matilda van den Bosch – 1,2,3
- Faculty of Forestry, UBC, Canada
- Faculty of Medicine, UBC, Canada
- Barcelona Institute of Global Health, Spain
Urban park in Vancouver during the first wave of COVID-19. Respecting physical distancing while being surrounded by nature. Photo credit: Tahia Devisscher.
- Van den Bosch, M. and Sang, Å.O., 2017. Urban natural environments as nature-based solutions for improved public health–A systematic review of reviews. Environmental research, 158: 373-384. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0013935117310241
- World Health Organization, 2016. Urban green spaces and health. Copenhagen, DK: WHO Regional Office for Europe. https://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/321971/Urban-green-spaces-and-health-review-evidence.pdf
- Wolf, K.L., Lam, S.T., McKeen, J.K., Richardson, G.R., van den Bosch, M. and Bardekjian, A.C., 2020. Urban trees and human health: A scoping review. International journal of environmental research and public health, 17(12): 4371. https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/17/12/4371
- Markevych, I., Schoierer, J., Hartig, T., Chudnovsky, A., Hystad, P., Dzhambov, A.M., De Vries, S., Triguero-Mas, M., Brauer, M., Nieuwenhuijsen, M.J. and Lupp, G., 2017. Exploring pathways linking greenspace to health: Theoretical and methodological guidance. Environmental research, 158: 301-317. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0013935117303067