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Connecting and not connecting with nature: Mental Health Awareness Week 2021

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week and the theme this year is Nature. Communications and Connect Helpline Worker Tom writes about some of the trials of trying to connect with nature.

 

The Mental Health Foundation’s website is a good place to read about nature and mental health and why it’s been chosen as the theme this year: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/campaigns/mental-health-awareness-week/why-nature

 

#ConnectWithNature is the week’s hashtag to encourage us all to connect with nature to benefit our mental health. This week on the LSLCS social media train, we’re sharing some words and images from staff to showcase some of their recent experiences of connecting with nature, and it’ll hopefully be insightful to see how our tremendously lovely and wonderful team have been faring this past year. I thought I’d share some of my thoughts about connecting with nature here, and some of the obstacles and difficulties involved.

 

Image of mountains with text reading, Nature

 

What does connecting with nature look like exactly? In our past year of lockdowns, getting out the house for a walk has been a prized activity; something to change up the tedium and sameness of staying at home. (No, the above is not a photo of the park near me.)

So, I don’t know about you, but after a year, I am sick to death of my local park. It’s not a particularly interesting place. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad it’s there, alongside the cemetery to go be a goth stereotype in. It’s just a bit limited in what it can offer: it’s just a park with some grass and some trees, large enough to walk around and feel like you’ve had a decent walk. Beyond that, does it ever feel like I’ve “connected with nature”? The jury’s out on that one.

 

It’s the kind of phrase that gets thrown at you if you’ve mentioned struggling with your mental health, as if you’ve never considered the option.

 

When struggling with mental health, going out to a park is not a magical cure. Connecting with nature is not a one-size-fits-all solution. They’re not bad ides – far from it – but how many times have you heard, “Go for a walk” or “You should get out more”? It’s the kind of phrase that gets thrown at you if you’ve mentioned struggling with your mental health, as if you’ve never considered the option of leaving the house. Sounds pretty invalidating. Ever tried having a cup of tea? Yeah, never thought of that one before.

When feeling dissatisfied with your current local offering, you might be told, “Just go to a different park.” Well, if I’m adding in travel time, going to the park is now becoming half of my entire day, and I have other things to do. I’ve got unhelpful blog posts to write! And most of my other hobbies and interests are very much located within the confines of my house. Plus, getting the motivation, particularly if you’re just going by yourself, is often an uphill struggle.

Not only is the park not guaranteed to heal me, some days I can’t bring myself to leave the house. The thought of leaving the safety of my home can trigger all sorts of anxiety. Sometimes I have to get out to the CoOp (mercifully very close to my house) for some vittles, and that short trip can bring on a wave of intense anxiety. It’s also too close to count as a walk, so I can then also feel bad about not getting my proper amount of leg-stretching fresh-air-breathing time.

I don’t want to go into excessive detail about my day-to-day life here, as my experience is hardly unique. There are all sorts of reasons why getting outside is not feasible, related to mental and physical health. Sometimes, you can actually have the motivation to get outside, and the weather’s a load of crap! The stars occasionally like to align like that and it can be very frustrating to be thwarted by rain when the spirit is willing.

 

Black and white photo of a city street with the text, Nature?

 

Okay, so this now sounds like I’m slagging off the whole theme of the week, or the concept of Mental Health Awareness Week, which I’m definitely not. There’s an obvious benefit that getting down with nature can bring to our mood, our wellbeing, our mental health in general. The Mental Health Foundation’s website is a good place to read about nature and mental health and why it’s been chosen as the theme this year: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/campaigns/mental-health-awareness-week/why-nature. Any times that I am able to connect with nature, it feels good, honest!

What has compelled me to write these words is how patronising mental health tips can be, how invalidating it can feel to hear them just thrown at you without much thought, and that can often happen during Mental Health Awareness Week. My personal Twitter feed is full of people swapping tales of the feeble token gestures and meaningless emails they’re receiving at work about mental health, such as being sent a daily inspirational quote, or just being told about mindfulness. (The traditional games of mental health bingo of have been doing the rounds too.) If I’m feeling generous, I can say that’s well intentioned, but misguided. If I’m not feeling generous, then it just comes across as a box-ticking exercise. “Yep, we acknowledged that mental health is a thing this one week of the year. Now to do nothing about it and ignore deep systematic issues that cause our employees’ ill health. Same time next year?” This is not raising awareness of mental health in any meaningful sense.

Seeing these anecdotes online really makes me appreciate the value of the person-centred and survivor-led approach. I hope that our posts with staff’s thoughts and photos can help you feel a bit more connected with nature, maybe inspired to get out to the countryside or to go on a bike ride. Perhaps they can give you pause to reflect on your own past year and how you’ve interacted with nature. And if you don’t do anything different, well that’s absolutely fine, you’re your own boss. No advice from us at LSLCS, we’re sharing people and moments and experiences. These are stories from people with their own experience of crisis and how they manage to connect (or not, as is the case here!) with nature. We can’t solve problems with a tweet or a blog post, but we can share our stories and help each other the best we can. I hope you’re all taking care of yourself as best as you possibly can.

Also, watching a David Attenborough documentary definitely counts as connecting with nature. So says I.