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Green care: contact with nature can improve mental health

Updated Sunday, 9 June 2019
Can being outside gardening improve our wellbeing? Discover three factors that account for the positive effects of 'green care'.

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According to the Director of the UK’s Royal Horticultural Society:

Britain is suffering from a “lost generation of gardeners” in their twenties, thirties and forties because their baby-boomer parents did not bother to teach them… Gardens owned by people in this age group [are] likely either to be neglected or treated as “outdoor living rooms”, with decking, patios and barbecues but few plants. 

Does this matter? Well it might do. A recent report commissioned by Natural England states that:

Horticulture in a variety of contexts has proved itself to benefit health and wellbeing, rehabilitation, and in enabling vulnerable and disadvantaged individuals to reach their true potential. 

In fact it is not only gardening that can be beneficial; contact with and caring for farm animals and taking part in nature conservation activities are also cited in the report as improving mental wellbeing. Having assessed the available evidence the report’s authors conclude that what they term ‘green care’ needs to become more widely available, especially for people who are experiencing mental health problems such as depression or dementia.

It is likely that there at least three factors that account for the positive effects of ‘green care’:

  • Natural surroundings can promote feelings of calm and safety and can increase an individual’s capacity to attend the present moment rather than dwelling on the past or worrying about the future
  • There is usually a social context to such activities and this has its own benefits of feeling part of a group and making social contact with others
  • The activities are experienced as meaningful and can lead to the development of new skills, a sense of achievement, responsibility and increased confidence.

Part of a parterre in an English garden. Having worked as a ‘horticultural therapist’ in the 1980s and 1990s with service users leaving the old long-stay mental hospitals I certainly agree that many people with mental health problems did seem to experience these benefits. However, as the years went on there seemed to be a move away from promoting gardening, farming and conservation work as mainstream therapeutic activities. In part this reflected a proper concern that people who had used mental health services should have the same opportunities to work in the modern industries of information technology, retail, leisure and manufacturing as the rest of the population. Also, farming and gardening work used to be a feature of some of the old asylums and so did not seem so appropriate in the age of ‘care in the community’.

So it is interesting that we now seem to have come full circle with the benefits of working outdoors being increasingly recognised by researchers. The time may be right to promote ‘green care’ to health commissioners and practitioners concerned to find more ways of helping vulnerable individuals, whilst perhaps more widely we will find public health campaigners urging us to get back to growing plants in our gardens again!


Bragg, R., Atkins, G. 2016. A review of nature-based interventions for mental health care. Natural England Commissioned Reports, Number204.

The Times, May 23, 2016


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