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James Cross: People at the heart

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The Chief Executive of Natural England tells us about putting people at the heart of the environment and making this one of our key themes of Conservation 21 – Natural England’s Conservation Strategy for the 21st Century.

Helping people to engage with and benefit from the natural environment as part of their day-to-day lives is fundamental to conserving the environment for now and for future generations.

The vital link between the environment and people is particularly highlighted by the role that the natural environment can play in supporting those with mental health issues and dementia. There is a growing body of evidence which demonstrates how access to good quality green spaces can bring health benefits, particularly for people’s mental health and well-being.

Last November, I had the opportunity to speak at the conference “Transforming Mental Health and Dementia Provision with the Natural Environment” – an event organised by the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare on behalf of the National Outdoors for All Working Group. In my speech, I said there are so many nature-based activities taking place on sites throughout England – Care Farms, Green Gym, Walking for HealthStepping into Nature – which have beneficial impacts for those with mental illnesses or dementia but there is scope to do so much more. I am really proud to be able to lead Natural England to do the very best for people alongside the environment.

Enjoying the great outdoors covers a wide range of of activities. Credit: Paul Keene

The prevalence of mental ill-health and dementia is on the rise in the UK. The costs to the health service and society are great and they are increasing, so the Prime Minister’s announcement last week, unveiling plans to transform mental health support was fantastic news. The government will now build on its initial £15 million investment to provide and promote new models of community-based care, with an emphasis on early intervention for children and young people.

Given the Prime Minister’s announcement, I am delighted to say that Natural England has released a very timely report on ‘Good practice in social prescribing for mental health: the role of nature-based interventions’. The report was commissioned by Natural England and compiled by Mind (the UK’s leading mental health charity) and researchers at Care Farming UK. It explores the use of social prescriptions as a model to get more nature-based interventions mainstreamed into health and social care.

Connecting people with nature through care farming

Social prescribing is a way of linking patients in primary care with sources of support within the community – usually provided by the voluntary and community sector. It offers GPs a non-medical referral option that can operate alongside existing treatments to improve health and wellbeing.

Simon Stevens, CEO of the NHS, identified social prescribing in his Five Years Forward View of NHS England, as one key way in which the NHS can change from “a ‘factory’ model of care and repair” to one that focuses on much wider individual and community engagement. This approach is akin to Conservation 21, where we want to do more for the environment by bringing people with us, and taking the time to understand what people want and need from the areas in which they live and beyond, in terms of wellbeing, healthcare, recreation, access, natural capital and more.

There are a wide range of nature based interventions

The potential benefits from social prescribing, as identified in the report, are clear to see. Not only could social prescribing enable improvements in mental health and well-being of patients whilst providing better outcomes for health and social care, it could also be a cost-effective use of NHS resources and a more effective use of GP time.

However, there remain all sorts of challenges and barriers to engaging GPs with social prescribing.

Following on from November’s conference, Natural England and Defra have been working closely with colleagues in the NHS, Department for Health and the King’s Fund (an independent charity working to improve health and care in England) to address these challenges – and I’m very pleased to say that we are making excellent progress.

In May, the King’s Fund are hosting a national conference on social prescribing for GPs, health commissioners, and the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector. Again, the report’s findings are being used to help shape a workshop specifically on the role and contribution of the natural environment.

The Good practice in social prescribing for mental health: the role of nature-based interventions report is a fantastic example of Natural England working with partners to help show how the natural environment can deliver real benefits for everyone, everywhere. I’m really pleased that it is contributing to the development of the Government’s 25 year plan for the environment and to the implementation of Natural England’s Conservation 21. Putting ‘people at the heart of the environment’ is a critical agenda for us and the wider natural environment sector, so we are very keen to work with partners, old and new, to help achieve this ambition.

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  1. Comment by Mike Crawshaw posted on

    Obvious really - People need to be re-connected with nature & be able to feel that it is part of them and they are part of it. Most mental health problems revolve around 'alienation'. Nature provides a sense of belonging.