Demonstrating Nature’s Value to Mental Health

28th February 2019

The Environment Agency asked us to carry out primary research to find evidence for the value of nature-based prescribing – whether in benefits to health and wellbeing, or in raising awareness of water pollution and conservation issues in rivers.

To deliver the project, we facilitated relationships with relevant stakeholders including South Gloucestershire Council, Bristol Avon Catchment Partnership, and Bristol Avon Rivers Trust. Working closely with these organisations, we put together a six-week pilot-trial programme called ‘River Remedies: Improving Wellbeing through Nature’ which offered vulnerable adults and teenagers the chance to engage with nature at sites on the Bristol Frome River.

Our study measured and assessed the wellbeing scores and pollution awareness of participants before and after activities, which included testing for nitrates and phosphates, invertebrate surveys, litter picking and yellow-fish campaigning (signposting highway gullies that drain directly to the river).

The initial results of the study showed an increase in assessed wellbeing scores following participation in the programme. In addition to this, a potential crisis was averted thanks to early intervention with a participating individual, and participants’ awareness and understanding of issues relating to water pollution and river conservation improved.

Our natural economy team led the partnership, designing the pilot study including the data collection, analysis and reporting. Our project partners Bristol Avon Rivers Trust co-ordinated river access and risk assessments, while the public health team from South Gloucestershire Council sourced participants likely to benefit from taking part.

The study provides novel evidence of the future role that nature-based prescriptions in a riverine setting can play. Following completion of the work, many of the participants have sought ongoing engagement through volunteering with Bristol Avon Rivers Trust, and there are plans for a follow-on or extension of the programme with additional funding from public health bodies.

David Baxter, our Head of Natural Economy and Project Director said:

“I believe projects on rivers should be part of a portfolio of social prescriptions available for everyone, particularly those who are dealing with issues of depression, anxiety or isolation. They are suitable for all ages but, as mental health is a growing problem for young people, it is worth noting that they are a particularly accessible and relevant therapy for teenagers.

“Rivers Trusts exist in every part of England. I would encourage them to consider the learning we developed in this programme to develop their own offering. There is no need to feel daunted by questions around health and safety or risk assessments: if you find the right partners amongst public health professionals they’ll look after these things for you.”

“Programmes like this are also a great way for water companies to engage with communities, look after their customers, and if less pharmaceuticals are being prescribed as a result of improved health and wellbeing, there will be less risk to water supplies and less investment needed to clean it up. I hope to see more partnerships like this in the future.”

Damian Crilly, Manager of Strategic Catchment Partnerships at the Environment Agency said:

“The 25 Year Environment Plan promotes the use of the natural environment as a resource for good health and wellbeing, including through nature-based social prescribing. Our overall aim for the project was to contribute to the evidence base on the benefits of nature based social prescribing and to show the practicalities that could be followed by catchment partnerships. This study has provided valuable, practical insight into the delivery of a social prescription on connecting people with nature. It found that river-based remedies, a kind of nature based social prescription, has a positive effect in terms of increased engagement with the river, it helped manage mental health risks and improved wellbeing.”