Blog: Mental Health Awareness Week & Year of Opportunity
Having access to green spaces and the open air was a lifeline to me throughout the hardest months of lockdown. Like millions of others, I craved as much time as I could outdoors, when all other aspects of our lives were confined to four walls or laptop screens. Even going for a short walk around a London park to break the monotony of online meetings hugely helped recalibrate my mind.
We have long been made aware that being connected to nature is not only enjoyable but has a positive impact on our mental wellbeing. There is now sufficient scientific evidence to prove outdoor activities can reduce stress and anxiety, as well as having obvious physical benefits. Indeed, doctors are increasingly suggesting ‘green prescriptions’ given the proven therapeutic benefits of spending time with nature.
So, after this incredibly challenging year, I am pleased the theme for this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week is ‘Nature.’
Throughout the week, we will be encouraged to share personal stories of the importance of nature to us, just as I am here. However, it’s a sad reality that opportunities to access the great outdoors don’t exist for everyone. Research published during the pandemic revealed that over 250,000 children in England have no access to outdoor space, a number that is noticeably skewed towards BAME children and those living in poverty.
When you consider that alongside the well-documented rise in mental health challenges for young people since the outbreak of Covid, these are worrying statistics. (67% of young people surveyed by the young person’s charity Young Minds believed that the pandemic will have a long-term negative effect on their mental health.)
This is an issue that my Foundation – the Westminster Foundation – plans to spend more time and resources on this year, not least through our association with the Country Trust, who work tirelessly to improve youth mental health through its farm and countryside programmes.
I fully support the Country Trust’s “Year of Opportunity” campaign calling for real world learning experiences, such as farming and access to the outdoors, to be included as a part of child’s balanced education. I would like to see policymakers acknowledge that accessing the countryside is more than simply a nice-to-have and make provisions in areas where it is most needed. I would also like to see children have access to more adult role models who can share first-hand knowledge of nature and farming and help ignite children’s curiosity by explaining why it matters to understand how our food is produced.
With an increase in the number children growing up in or moving to urban areas it is vital we find ways to bring urban and rural communities together. As we ease out of lockdown, I am delighted the Country Trust can finally re-start their excellent outdoor education programmes. I’m certainly looking forward to welcoming children back to the Grosvenor Farms as soon as we can and enjoying the shared benefits that nature provides us all.
The Duke of Westminster is Chair of the Westminster Foundation and President of the Country Trust.