It’s mental health week this week and the theme is on the benefits of nature on our mental health. So to mark this occasion I have decided to write about my own mental health and how nature has so often played a part in what I do to feel well. And before anyone asks, it’s not just because my last name is Tree.
My mental health journey…
The concept of managing my own mental health was never really on my radar until it became something that affected me personally. Whilst I had experienced others around me but had never considered it would be something I would need to take an active role in.
I am very lucky to have had a happy childhood and adolescent life where things seemed to go my way. School went well, I had lots of friends, a supportive family and a sport I was very passionate about.
When I was 19 I was diagnosed with a degenerative sight condition known as cone-rod dystrophy, a diagnosis that would affect my life going forward and left me wondering how I would cope. At the time I told myself I was strong and I guess I internalised my actual feelings and tell myself that I would be ok.
I now know that there were times that I was in a state of deep depression and had many anxiety fuelled episodes where I would hide myself away and not share what was going on in my head. At the time I did not recognise this as being something I could get help with and could not even recognise that my feelings were common and that the symptoms had a name.
For a number of years I continued to live my life as my vision got worse, still enduring these episodes and continuing to tell myself I was strong and not asking for help. I first became aware of mental health management when I found myself working at the Planet Ark Environmental Foundation is Sydney, Australia. I was working on a campaign called ‘National Tree Day’ and the foundation had commissioned some research on how spending time in nature links with happiness. This research can be found at https://treeday.planetark.org/research/2015. From working around this and from conversations with other staff I had my first understanding that mental health was something that could be intervened with and improved. There were also monthly guided mindfulness practises in this job and it made a big difference to me.
After being involved in this I learned that I could make myself feel better from spending time in nature and would regularly spend some quiet time out on the coast in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs looking out to sea or lying on the grass or beach.
I then moved back to the UK and found that as my vision further changed I lost some independence and lost touch with nature as I wasn’t going out in it as much as I felt I relied on others to get around. My mental health suffered around this time and I found myself spending more and more time alone and indoors as depression and anxiety took over.
I had a poignant moment in 2016 where I had travelled to Peri so I could trek to Machu Picchu, a 15th century Incan Citadel high in the mountains. I had climbed to a point where I no longer felt safe and had decided to go back down whilst the rest of my party continued. The weight of my vision limiting me on a mountain side really got to me and my mental health took a harsh beating. Luckily, being in a tranquil mountain area with wild Alpacas roaming around I was able to take some time and centre myself for the trek back. Nowadays I can always got back there in my head when things get a bit much.
When I finally decided to reach out and get some mental health help in early 2017 from Judith at OAB I began to feel like I was getting my life back. I then managed to get back some independence and mobolity and managed to get myself to a place where I can get out in punlic more and reconnect with nature.
Where did I get to?
These days I am able to make time for nature including daily walks in the fields and forest near my house with my guide dog Maisie and lying on the grass in my garden and listening to the birds. I find that practising this allows me to destress and focus.
Recently I have also heard a short podcast that strengthens my feelings on how this works for me which can be accessed at https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000vy1l.
Spending time outside and in nature can help you to tune out the ‘noise’ in life and have time for your thoughts and feelings. Why not try it for yourself and see how it makes you feel.