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By GM Health and Social Care Partnership | 21 September 2021 | TAGS: Oldham, Mental Health, Stories

As one of seven national ‘green social prescribing’ programme sites, Greater Manchester is testing and learning how we can best connect people with nature for their mental wellbeing. - you can read more in this news story and opinion from Mind’s strategic lead in Greater Manchester and co-lead of the Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise (VCSE) Mental Health leadership Group.

This ‘Nature for Health’ outdoor-focused activity aims to engage with individuals most at risk of developing poor mental health and create the activities and support they need, whilst making the most of the natural environment. This includes physical activity such as walking, cycling and other outdoor exercise, providing nature activity kits, gardening, food growing schemes, conservation training, volunteering opportunities and education.

“I see people flourish as a result of immersing themselves in nature. We achieve things together – using skills we often didn’t know we had.”

Debra Madden is a Social Prescribing Link Worker in Oldham. She talks about her experiences of helping people to be happier and healthier through a connection to the natural world.

“As a keen hiker, I understand the difference being outdoors and keeping active has on me, friends and family, as well as the people I support through my role as a social prescribing link worker.

“Seeing young people from poverty-stricken families who have never been to the countryside marvel at sheep on a hill is so rewarding, I see people flourish as a result of immersing themselves in nature, after they have stopped and listened and used their senses. For people with depression or who have suffered loss, being in nature and seeing flowers bloom, new shoots sprouting, or lambs just born, shows there can be light after a storm – it restores people’s faith that their own lives can heal.

“In my previous job with the Princes Trust I used to take people out walking on the Pennine Way or caving or rock climbing. Being in a hail storm on the highest ridge of the Pennine Way means having to help each other and be resourceful. Caving and rock climbing are physical challenges and tested all our fears. We achieved things together – using skills we often didn’t know we had.

“The same can be said for less physically challenging activities. Getting out and about, especially if we are not used to doing so, tests who we are and what we are capable of but that happens very slowly and naturally. It isn’t at all forced. We learn a lot about what matters to us and that we are capable of more than we think.

“A 19-year-old young lady I worked with was referred by her GP as she hadn’t been out of her bedroom for years. She was highly socially anxious and wouldn’t speak on the phone initially. Over time, she accepted my calls, through her mum, and we had lengthy conversations. I helped her open her curtains, then her windows, and door, then go into her garden. I accompanied her when she felt strong enough to walk to the park and she found that going outside, seeing flowers and the beauty around her reduced her anxiety. She came so far that one time, when I phoned to catch up, she was out for a walk at the beach with her family. That was such a wonderful and rewarding moment.

“One gentleman was referred to me for a long-term health condition by his GP. He was lonely and isolated, and found it difficult to engage with people, feeling claustrophobic. I connected him into the gardening sessions at Alexander Park, where he could go do what he needed to do at his own pace. Outdoors there was lots of space and over time, being outside in nature provided a natural way for him to connect with people. He feels he is giving something back to his local neighbourhood and he has made friends and likes to chat, saying being outdoors is good for his mood.

“Margaret discovered the Social Prescribing Link Worker service at Action Together  as she was at home doing digital research and looking for support.  During the Covid pandemic lockdown she had become more sedentary, less mobile and described herself as a “couch potato”. She had become more isolated. Following an operation and with some anxieties around going out alone we initially met to walk from her door slowly. However Margaret soon gathered pace and has been very motivated to make changes and become healthier. She has now attended a number of group sessions and is going out more frequently independently with a busy schedule. Margaret said to me: “It’s really helped me. I’m more confident, feeling fitter and I’ve lost weight too. I really enjoy walking and am looking at joining more groups and walks. It’s really worked I’m much happier.”

“As adults, life often gets in the way of us taking time to explore and play but experiencing new things opens our mind and provides a sense of adventure and a means to connect to like-minded people.  Outside activity helps us develop resilience, and we all benefit from time to bond, think and reflect. Exploring the natural world is not just good for us physically but mentally too.”

Debra joined Action Together, which delivers the social prescribing service for the borough of Oldham alongside Mind, Positive Steps and Age UK. In August 2020 the team saw increases in referrals during the pandemic, often for heightened anxiety and loneliness. Alongside her team, she is helping people in Oldham to access groups and activities to live happier and healthier lives. Action Together also delivers Social Prescribing in Tameside.

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