One of the many things the pandemic has taught us is that we feel better when we can get outside and be in nature.

The use of green space has proven time and time again to be a highly beneficial tool for maintaining mental health and in recovery from a mental health illness. For some, this might mean joining a walking group, growing vegetables at a community allotment or simply getting away from it all in Greater Manchester’s vibrant and varied wood and park land.

However, some of us might need help to know what nature-based opportunities there are near us, we might need some support and encouragement to use them, or they might not exist within easy reach of us.

That’s why we need to invest in providing these green opportunities, and making them accessible to everyone who needs them.

Social prescribing, is a way of connecting people to groups, projects and schemes in their community for support with the health and wellbeing – often via referral from GPs or nurses at their local GP practice. Greater Manchester’s social prescribing network has proved invaluable during the Covid-19 pandemic when many more people found that they were struggling with their mental health or feeling isolated. The experiences of our social prescribing link workers, so those whose job it is make those community connections, provide really interesting insight.

 

Sinead Mackin, a social prescribing link worker from Trafford shares her experiences:

“Throughout lockdown, when there have been so many rules on what we couldn’t do, connecting people to nature is something we found we could do safely. We have embedded walks and talks into health and care services and found that service users have responded well and benefited from the simple pleasure of being outdoors.”

 

A great example of how this has been working on the ground, is Sow the City’s Prescribe a Plant scheme. This voluntary sector organisation has been working with Cornbrook Medical Practice in Manchester to develop their grounds into an engaging space for growing, wildlife and relaxation. This has helped to support many people who are socially isolated and have very little access to outdoor space. The garden provides opportunity for local people to learn new skills, take part in physical exercise, get access to healthy and free food and meet new people.  That’s why Cornbrook’s GPs are prescribing gardening and nature activities. Sow the City has been able to run these sessions in a safe way in small groups throughout lockdowns and changing restrictions. Sow the City have produced a short film that really captures the positive impact this scheme has had.

I hear so many inspirational stories of people who have flourished and overcome problems in their lives as the result of being referred into nature-based activities. Here are just two.

 

Chris’ story:

Chris volunteers at Petrus’ community garden after being referred into their volunteering scheme through his community mental health team. Chris said:

“I was diagnosed with schizo-affective disorder which made it difficult for me to maintain work and social relationships, I was admitted into hospital and then into a residential care unit.  I have worked at Petrus as a volunteer for a couple of years.”

“Volunteering has given me a strong connection with the local community, particularly with disadvantaged members of society. I would like to get back into full-time paid employment eventually and I feel that the duties I have undertaken at Petrus have been invaluable in helping me to learn new skills and increase my confidence.”

 

Katie’s story:

Katie, 22, joined Lancashire Wildlife Trust’s Myplace Project following a prolonged period of anxiety and low self-confidence which left her struggling to progress.

Katie got involved in a range of activities from making homes for wildlife to food growing, and was able to open up about being bullied at school and the affect this had on her self-esteem. Myplace provided Katie with a regular group of supportive young people and the encouragement she needed to begin believing in herself again. A few months into the project she successfully applied for a part-time job; being able to deal with something as stressful as a job interview and succeed was a real milestone.

Katie stayed with the group and was nominated for the Young Volunteer of the Year Award in recognition of her hard work and the support she provided to her peers. Katie went on to volunteer regularly with the Trust getting involved in conservation work. Reflecting back on her time with the Trust, Katie said:

“The Myplace project has increased my knowledge and confidence. I have met and worked with many people with inspiring stories, who have taught me many skills. In many situations in life, I use the skills I have learnt to help myself and people around me.”

 

I have been proud to work with Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership and over 40 partner organisations to secure a bid to be one of the seven green social prescribing test and learn sites in England. Five Greater Manchester pilot projects have now been selected to receive a share of this funding and I look forward to seeing these schemes progress over the next two years.

The green social prescribing programme will help us connect many more people with nature-based activities, building on the assets in our communities and individual strengths, hopes and interests, by offering support that is more personalised around what people want and need to support their health and wellbeing.

This funding will allow green providers, social prescribers, voluntary organisations and community initiatives to come together with health, social care and public health to ‘test and learn’ together, providing long term benefits to us all.

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