May 12, 2023
It’s a simple statement, a simple message, but sometimes the simple things are the most powerful.
I’m a recipient of nature’s healing power. For years I lived with crippling symptoms of a variety of mental health conditions. Issues that prevented me from living a ‘normal’ life, that left me unable to function in society. I was unemployed, socially isolated, helpless and hopeless, with no prospect of any change.
I lived like that for years. I exhausted every form of traditional treatment available, tried every pill, every therapy, every ‘miracle cure’. Every year I grew more tired and more depressed, until it seemed like that was all there was to life, a struggle, one that I was less and less sure I wanted to continue.
I was at the very end of my strength, and my capacity to endure – and then something unexpected happened. I discovered that there was a tiny little gap in the armour of the depression and anxiety that defined my days.
Through a series of chance encounters, I found myself standing in a woodland clearing, surrounded by trees, plants, animals, birds and insects. Feeling the sun on my skin and grass beneath my feet. Listening to the wind rustling through the trees, the scent of wildflowers and fresh running water in the air. My senses were alive in a way they hadn’t been for years. I was outside, in amongst a group of people, and for almost the first time I could ever remember, I wasn’t afraid.
It doesn’t sound like much, just not being afraid. But those hours, spent on a volunteering session with a local nature charity, shine in my memory.
I had no background of spending time outdoors, or of interacting with nature but over the weeks and months that followed I spent more and more time in those woods. I named the trees and discovered how to tell one from another, I learned about the wildflowers and all the tiny little lives that hide among them. I found and followed secret paths created by the deer, foxes and badgers that shared this place with me. I helped to conserve the woodland, working with others to manage the habitat so that it would thrive into the future. I shared experiences and stories with the people around me, I learned how to express myself, how to harness my imagination and creativity. I learned that I had value and a place in the world.
I slept better, I ate better, I looked after myself better. I woke in the morning eager for the day ahead. My relationships changed, I learned to smile again, I learned how to not be afraid.
I wasn’t cured. There is no ‘cure’ for the mental health issues I had – and still have – but I was coping. Every new day spent outdoors I grew stronger, every new week I learned something about myself, every new month my horizons broadened. Every new year I survived to live another one.
As time passed, I learned so much about myself and about the power of nature. So much in fact that I was able to get a job – in my mid 30s the first real job I had ever been able to hold down – working in conservation. I was motivated to learn more about my experience and how that could be applied to others. I learned that this wasn’t just something that had happened only to me, that scientific studies had shown that the effect nature could have on people’s mental health was actually something real and tangible, and it was something that could be replicated.
I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to help create a project that would give others the chance to experience what had happened to me. Just a few short years after I had stood in that woodland clearing and begun my own journey, I was now able to help others take their first steps along that same path.
Working with colleagues from TCV and the Scottish Wildlife Trust on a project called Creating Natural Connections we were able to develop a model for nature and wellbeing sessions called Wild Ways Well. Wild Ways Well supports people to experience the power of the natural world, and its capacity to heal for themselves. It combines spending time in nature with an internationally recognised mental health support framework called the Five Ways to Wellbeing, it creates a safe, supported space where people can find out for themselves the difference nature can make.
Each Wild Ways Well session can be broken down into three simple parts:
- Some light physical exercise – normally in the form of a nature walk – not a march to get from A to B, but a gentle stroll through greenspaces, where we stop to take notice of the world around us, to watch the birds, smell the flowers, experience the trees.
- A social break – time to spend together, connecting with other people as well as nature, but in a way where everyone feels safe and supported to take part as much, or as little, as they feel able. Wherever possible this would include everyone sharing a hot drink in the open air, where we could all take part in the familiar social ritual of sharing and enjoying a cuppa – tea really does taste better outdoors!
- A nature-based activity – This is where we can take the Five Ways to Wellbeing and apply it to our lives. Activities vary with the weather and the seasons, but they include things like learning how to identify plants and wildlife and how to survey them; creating art with natural materials, telling and sharing stories, unleashing our creativity; working with tools and taking part in simple habitat management work, pruning plants encroaching onto paths, planting trees and wildflowers or removing invasive species. These activities always have a conservation or environmental theme at their heart – after all its only right that as nature is helping us, we should help nature in return.
Over the next few years, we ran hundreds of Wild Ways Well sessions with thousands of participants from all backgrounds and walks of life. The flexibility of the model meant that we never found an audience that we couldn’t adapt to, who couldn’t get some benefit from contact with nature. The feedback we received was amazing, we were helping to make a real difference in people’s lives.
The difference is real, its tangible, and almost anyone can benefit from it. You don’t need any special training, experience or equipment to take part, there are no side effects. Over the next few years, we’re going to be working side by side with St John’s Hospital and local community groups in Livingston to help people take those first steps on a new journey – who knows where the path might lead them?
Paul Barclay is the Senior Project Officer at The Conservation Volunteers (TCV). Thanks to funding from NHS Lothian Charity and the National Lottery Community TCV will be running a Wild Ways Well project in Livingston, supporting people to get outdoors into greenspace, helping them to discover new places to spend time, take part in new activities and enjoy the vast, unending wonder of the natural world around them. Together with St John’s Hospital and Ladywell Neighbourhood Network, they will be offering people the opportunity to experience the benefits of spending time in nature, and learn about how they can use it to help themselves in their everyday lives.
Find out more about our Wild Ways Well Project
We have a number of events and activities which run throughout the year. Visit our events page to find out what’s coming up and how you can take part.