By Kirsty Nutt writing in November 2020 for the RSPB Scotland
From Cornwall to Shetland conservation groups and GPs are partnering to “prescribe nature”. The government has committed funding to develop social prescribing, and since the end of last year, GPs at five practices in Edinburgh are now able to prescribe nature to patients as part of their treatment, thanks to an innovative project designed by RSPB Scotland, in collaboration with NHS Lothian’s charity partner, the Edinburgh and Lothians Health Foundation.
Nature Prescriptions started in Shetland in 2017 as a partnership between RSPB Scotland and NHS Shetland and was successfully rolled out to all ten GP practices across Shetland in 2018. The new Edinburgh pilot aims to investigate whether Nature Prescriptions can be delivered in a similar way in an urban environment, and to explore the potential for extending it throughout Scotland. Elaine Bradley, Project Development Executive for Nature Prescriptions, discusses this new initiative and how it might benefit both people and nature.
After the success of the Shetland project, and the enormous interest it attracted, both locally and internationally, we decided to explore how the same process might be replicated in an urban environment. We had already been contacted by GPs who were interested and so didn’t have any problems finding practices to work with.
I think that it’s the simplicity of the project that makes it so appealing. Individuals benefit because connecting with nature can improve physical and mental wellbeing, and nature benefits because connecting with nature often inspires people to want to protect it. Some of the GPs we spoke too were already prescribing nature in some form but said that they didn’t feel they had the knowledge or confidence to do it well. So, we used our knowledge of nature to identify local activities and ideas which enables GPs to prescribe nature, where appropriate, as part of a patient’s treatment plan. These materials draw on the latest research on nature connection and how this connection can best support health and wellbeing.
While spending time in natural environments and exercising outdoors can, in itself, be good for our wellbeing, Nature Prescriptions involves more than simply being outdoors. The key focus is on helping people connect with nature in ways that are personal, emotional and meaningful. It’s less about knowing and more about noticing and engaging with the natural world as it changes and unfolds. For example, we might take time to notice the changing colours and light of autumn, get to know a neighbourhood tree, or the local wildlife in streets and parks. We might notice good things in nature and how they make us feel. We might also make a home for nature in our gardens or on our windowsills. Connecting in this way can cultivate a sense of curiosity, joy and compassion that is positive for our wellbeing and is also good for nature.
The Edinburgh pilot was due to begin in March but was paused as GP Practices dealt with the demands of the onset of Covid-19. In many ways, the pandemic has led to a new awareness and appreciation of greenspaces, with numerous reports of people finding comfort in nature during lockdown. GPs have told us about the growing number of patients suffering from anxiety, insomnia and low mood, with some saying that nature prescriptions was “needed now more than ever”. Others have commented on their own levels of stress and how the nature prescription materials encouraged them to spend time in nature for their own health too.
We are pleased to be able to re-start the pilot this autumn and are grateful for the five GP Practices who have agreed to be involved, as well as Edinburgh and Lothians Health Foundation for working with us and for including Nature Prescriptions in their Green Health Strategy for NHS Lothian.
Our hope is that by learning from our experiences in Shetland, and the Edinburgh pilot, we can expand nature prescriptions further and extend the benefits of nature to those who need them most. The pervasive health challenges associated with the Covid-19 pandemic mean that there’s never been a better time to connect people with nature to support health and wellbeing. As nature restores and nurtures us, it’s also more likely that we deepen our concern and care for nature, and it is this reciprocal relationship that is at the heart of Nature Prescriptions.