It would be great if World Environment Day 2015 focussed not just on ‘the environment out there’, but on us in the environment out there. Walking, working, reflecting, relaxing, dreaming and drawing down on the power of the natural world to make us feel better, feel more engaged. It is, after all, a well-known fact that being outdoors, communing with nature, is good for your health and wellbeing. There’s something very instinctive in this, driven by the effects that we all feel when in contact with the natural world.

And the need for this could hardly be greater. A report from the Mental Health Foundation (MHF) in the run-up to the May General Election showed that more than one in four UK citizens regularly suffers from stress, and that more than one in seven is ‘often or always’ depressed. Stress, anxiety and depression are part of the wider mental illness scene, which costs taxpayers up to £100bn a year, according to the MHF.

Encouragingly, all the Party manifestos had quite extensive commitments on mental health, with a growing sense that non-drug-based interventions (such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and mindfulness courses) can make a difference. But any such changes will still be playing out against a backdrop of worsening financial pressures for the NHS.

As President of The Conservation Volunteers (TCV), I do find it just a touch depressing (no pun intended) that most advocates of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and mindfulness strategies still fail to understand the importance of access to the natural world, in terms of maintaining and restoring ‘a sound mind in a sound body’, and still fail to understand the huge financial savings that could be achieved by putting ‘the environment’ at the heart of our wellbeing strategies.

TCV is an extremely dynamic, community-based charity that connects people with the environment, and builds strong and sustainable communities. How do we do this? By giving people a sense of purpose and belonging, empowering them to take control of their own lives by improving local spaces for the benefit of all.

Our principal programme in this area of health and the environment is called Green Gym. Getting involved in Green Gym allows you to belong to a group of people who create, manage and maintain community spaces. It gives you something tangible that you can point to and say: ‘We did that, and I gave my time and energy to making this beautiful, accessible place.’ It’s these feelings of satisfaction, enhanced self-esteem and sometimes even euphoria that contribute to improved physical and mental health. Giving is good for you; it promotes wellbeing.

We position our Green Gym initiative within the well-known wellbeing framework used by both the Network of Wellbeing and by the New Economics Foundation (NEF). Their ‘Five Ways to Wellbeing’ is based on behaviours which people can easily build into their everyday lives. With group-based, outdoor activities, we help to combat isolation, inactivity and sedentary lifestyles in a way that is completely compatible with ‘Five Ways to Wellbeing’:
• Connect – with other people, building lasting social networks and community.
• Be more active – by gently increasing physical activity levels outdoors in a natural setting.
• Take notice of the world and local green spaces, working to enhance and enjoy them.
• Keep learning new skills – develop your knowledge and, as this grows, your confidence.
• Give to others by creating attractive, high-quality spaces that can be used by the whole community.

That’s all good, as they say. But it’s also not enough, in a cash-strapped, predominantly orthodox health system, if we want to see the accelerated adoption of initiatives of this kind as mainstream health interventions. Happily, that evidence gets more and more robust every year.

According to an independent report in July 2013 by NEF, the economic benefits of one person participating in a Green Gym over a year can be as much as £7,370 per annum, which represents a 1:7 Social Return on Investment. The cost savings in this case study included:
• Avoided prescription costs – £258.27
• Avoided medical consultation costs -£408.92
• Avoided costs of diabetes complications – £1,815
• Avoided use of alcohol outpatient treatment – £4,888

The report went on to say that if the wider social benefits derived from Green Gyms (through employment, for example) are also taken into consideration, then the return on investment is significantly higher.

As President of TCV, one of the things I am most proud of is that our activities are for anyone and everyone. We’ve had a lot of success in reaching people and communities where health inequalities are most common and most problematic, and where public spaces are often in a very poor state or non-existent.

This is the kind of practical, hands-on (literally!) approach to today’s mental health crisis that we’re going to need to hear a lot more about above the next five years than we have over the last five. And no better day to start promoting such an approach than World Environment Day on June 5th.