Doctors should prescribe participation in outdoor conservation activities for patients suffering with depression and stress, a leading nature organisation has said.

Sudbury Mercury: Participation in outdoor conservation activities should be prescribed by doctors, says The Wildlife TrustsParticipation in outdoor conservation activities should be prescribed by doctors, says The Wildlife Trusts (Image: Archant)

The proposal comes from the Wildlife Trusts following the publication of a new report this week, which reveals that enabling contact with nature for people who have low levels of mental wellbeing offers good value for money by improving people's health.

Researchers at Leeds Beckett University analysed the social value of The Wildlife Trusts' nature conservation projects, which offer outdoor volunteering opportunities and programmes that support people experiencing problems such as anxiety, stress or mild depression. The report draws on the conclusions of three years research which found that people participating in both sorts of outdoor nature conservation activities felt significantly better, both emotionally and physically, as a result. They needed, for example, fewer visits to GPs or felt more able to get back into work.

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The researchers calculated the social return on investment for the two types of project and found that for every £1 invested in regular nature volunteering projects, which play a part in creating a healthy lifestyle by tackling problems like physical inactivity or loneliness, there is an £8.50 social return.

For every £1 invested in specialised health or social needs projects, which connect people to nature and cost more to run, there is a £6.88 social return.

Sudbury Mercury: People who spend time volunteering on outdoor conservation activities tend to have good mental health, says the Wildlife Trusts charityPeople who spend time volunteering on outdoor conservation activities tend to have good mental health, says the Wildlife Trusts charity (Image: Archant)

Nature and wellbeing manager at The Wildlife Trusts, Dom Higgins, said: "We want to see the concept of nature on prescription becoming a core part of the National Health Service (NHS) mental wellbeing programmes. "This new report shows the enormous value of a natural health service. It's also important to have more investment in Wildlife Trust outdoor volunteering which has been proven to improve mental, physical and social wellbeing.

"In addition, we need many more wild, natural places near to where people live and work - that way, green prescribing can be rolled-out everywhere. This would help the NHS save money - as well as help nature to recover."

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The new report also includes research undertaken by the University of Essex in 2017, which analysed the impacts of volunteering with The Wildlife Trusts.

It assessed changes in 139 participants' attitudes, behaviour and mental wellbeing over 12 weeks of group-based nature conservation and found that people's mental wellbeing significantly improved.

Sudbury Mercury: Volunteers coppicing in Bulls WoodVolunteers coppicing in Bulls Wood (Image: Archant)

The study found that taking part in Wildlife Trust projects for at least six weeks resulted in significant improvements in mental wellbeing and that the greatest improvements were for people who had low wellbeing at the start, or were new to volunteering.

The research also found that, in general, people who were already active with their individual Wildlife Trust had higher levels of mental wellbeing than those who were just starting out.

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GP and health ambassador for The Wildlife Trusts, Dr Amir Khan, added: "There is a clear need to invest in nature-based services so that more people can benefit.

"If more people could access nature programmes I believe that we would see a knock-on effect in our GP surgeries, with fewer people attending for help with preventable or social problems arising from being cut off from others, not getting active or having a purpose."

Sudbury Mercury: Coppicing in Suffolk Wildlife Trust's Bulls WoodCoppicing in Suffolk Wildlife Trust's Bulls Wood (Image: Archant)