Leading psychiatrists and the largest provider of outdoor recreation in England are urging people to continue venturing outdoors this autumn and winter to improve their mental health.
Forestry England and experts from the Royal College of Psychiatrists say that engaging with nature – such as spending time in forests – can help alleviate the winter blues.
Studies have shown that visiting forests can provide a wealth of social, mental and physical health benefits. They include stimulating the mind[i], staying active longer[ii], boosting the immune system[iii], improving cognitive function and mood[iv], improving children’s happiness[v], stimulating the senses, and reducing the possibility of poor mental health.
A public survey in 2019 reported that three-quarters of people who visit forests go at least once a month. However, one in five respondents said they never visited during the previous winter (October 2018 – March 2019).[vi]
Research has also claimed that almost one in three people in the UK suffer from seasonal affective disorder[vii], a type of depression that usually occurs during the winter months and can leave people with a persistent low mood.
Dr Alan Kellas is a psychiatrist interested in nature-based approaches to mental health, and lead for Green Care on the Royal College of Psychiatrists’s Sustainability Committee. He says,
“Spending time outdoors in nature, including in woodlands and forests, can really improve mental health. Our senses are engaged differently, our attention changes, we naturally become more mindful, our mood settles if aroused or anxious, or lifts if low or depressed, our imagination can be sparked and we can gain a different perspective on our lives, projects and problems.”
Anxiety and depression costs the UK economy an estimated £70-£100 million a year[viii], while studies have shown that spending as little as two hours a week in nature is an effective evidence based strategy for maintaining good mental health.[ix]
Ellen Devine is the Wellbeing Projects Manager at Forestry England, which is encouraging more people to visit forests as the nights draw in. She says,
“From the colours of autumn to the crisp frost of a winter’s morning, the forest is full of magical moments. While it can be tempting to retreat at this time of year, it’s so important to keep going outside and keep exploring. Even a short visit to the woods can work wonders for how we feel.”
Dr Kellas believes that taking notice of nature can help change how we see the world around us. He adds,
“Noticing the way trees grow and mature, their autumnal colours or winter skeletons, or the way wildlife adapts to seasons changing, can help slow our ruminating thoughts and help us see our place in the wider web of life.”