Bench nature social prescribing 

Lockdown highlighted the impact of green spaces on our mental health and wellbeing – and now researchers are investigating whether prescribing nature can help prevent and tackle mental ill health.

A team of researchers at The University of Sheffield, Sheffield Hallam University, the University of Exeter and the University of Plymouth are working in partnership to evaluate how to deliver green social prescribing. Social prescribing and community-based support enables GPs, other health and care practitioners and local agencies to refer people to a link worker who gives people time and focuses on what matters to the individual. For some people this will be green social prescribing, which links them to nature-based interventions and activities, such as local walking for health schemes, community gardening and food-growing projects.

The evaluation is funded for a total of £887,413 from HMT’s Shared Outcomes Fund, a fund announced by HM Treasury to pilot innovative ways of working that will improve collaboration on priority policy areas that sit across, and are delivered by, multiple public sector organisations to improve outcomes and deliver better value for citizens. The evaluation contract has been awarded by the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and will be supported by Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), Natural England, NHS England, Public Health England, Sport England, the National Academy of Social Prescribing (NASP), and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG).

Throughout the two year funded period, the research consortium will deliver an in depth evaluation across seven test and learn sites targeting communities in England hardest hit by COVID-19. We are helping these sites understand how, and in what ways, their activities can successfully connect people with nature to improve mental health and wellbeing. The team will also take a “lighter touch” approach to evaluating green social prescribing in other areas, helping to boost understanding of how green social prescribing could be scaled up and embedded into practice effectively.

Dr Kerryn Husk, PenARC Senior Research Fellow at the University of Plymouth, said:

“We are excited to embark on this project, which will help deliver on the Government’s ambition to help more people, from all backgrounds, to engage with and spend time in green and blue spaces in their everyday lives. The project is particularly important in the context of COVID-19, which has had an unprecedented impact on the nation’s mental health and wellbeing.”

Environment Minister Rebecca Pow said:

“This pandemic has highlighted the importance of connecting with nature for our health and mental wellbeing. This project will help bring that connection with nature and green spaces to those who need it most. This evaluation will ensure that we extract valuable learning which will help us to do even more to improve people’s access to and engagement with nature in the future.”

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NIHR ARC South West Peninsula (also known as PenARC) is the National Institute of Health Research's (NIHR) Applied Research Collaboration (ARC) South West Peninsula, and is a partnership between the University of Plymouth, University of Exeter and NHS and Local Authority organisations across Devon, Cornwall and Somerset. PenARC was first established as a CLAHRC in 2008 and is now part of a national network of 15 NIHR-funded ARCs.

The partnership supports and funds research with direct impact on patients’ health and the way in which NHS care is delivered, conducting research based on questions from those directly affected: doctors, nurses, therapists and, importantly, patients. The partnership has been highly successful in utilising match funding to access support for our research projects from other sources and external partners.