Getting to Know the Countryside
The Skylark
THERAPI Report – download here
Research paper by Andy McGeeney and Dr Sophie Jeffery – download here

Getting to Know the Countryside

In 2003 I worked as the project manager coordinating and implementing an innovative programme of eleven projects exploring the potential health benefits of the green outdoors. I was part of a team at Thames Chase Community Forest, Upminster, Essex, on the fringes of NE London. One of the projects was entitled Getting to Know the Countryside.
The aim of the Getting to Know the Countryside programmes was to break down barriers to accessing the green environment for people experiencing mental health problems. It also aimed to encouraged people to gain therapeutic benefits from being outdoors. The two six week programmes involved groups meeting for three hours a week at the Millennium Centre in Eastbrookend Country Park, Dagenham, East London. Mental health users with their occupational therapists met and had lunch together at the Centre. They then spent two hours in the park with a wildlife expert or artist being introduced to nature. The expectations of the myself as project manager and the occupational therapists were developed from discussions with clients. The expectations were that participants would gain benefits if:
– the place was easy to get to by public transport;
– the facilities and people made it welcoming;
– there was a social side in meeting others in a group;
– it was familiar to them because of repeated visits;
– there was a range of activities they could do there.
The responses were collected through structured feedback, discussion groups and observations made during the events. In summary the responses from users and occupational therapists were very positive.
People said they:
– felt emotionally better for being taken into nature and shown things of interest,
– enjoyed all the different activities,
– learnt interesting information about the countryside that made it more attractive,
– gained personal confidence, and overcame personal challenges,
– enjoyed socialising in the group,
– felt increasingly comfortable with the location,
– would go back to the Millennium Centre or visit their local open space again,
– appreciated and were reassured by the positive attitude of the Centre staff,
– thought the facilities were good on the whole,
– thought the country park was easy to get to by public transport.
Evaluation The Getting to Know the Countryside programmes clearly had specific attractions and benefits that related to the users being outdoors in a green environment. This outcome is consistent with academic research in the field which underlines the therapeutic value of people being outdoors in nature. Experiences in nature are a low cost and easy to manage option in the professional’s choice of therapeutic interventions.
Participants People suffering from emotional distress and a variety of psychiatric disorders who were living in the community and being supported by the Community Mental Health Team (CMHT) in Havering (part of NE London Mental Health Trust). There were two programmes based around two groups, over 65s and under 65s with 10 and 11 people in them respectively.
Was the project sustainable?
A further significant outcome of the project was that the Occupational Therapists (O/T) felt sufficiently impressed by the outcomes for their clients that they decided to continue to offer experiences in nature as part of their ongoing work.
Since the project ended in Summer 2004:
– Two users went on to join a local conservation group;
– One O/T bought books on trees and pond life and purchased nets etc to take out on regular walks she organised;
– One O/T trained up to lead walks and ran weekly sessions from the Forest Visitor Centre. Walking for Health didn’t suit most users;
– As a result of the success of the walking programme a cycling project was launched from the same visitor centre and 30 users still regularly go cycling each week (2010).
Some quotes from users and O/Ts
“That time you asked us just to stop and listen was good, we heard the skylarks and other birds, it calmed Axxxx down who was getting agitated. We could listen to bird songs on a tape and then go on our own bird walk. Some of them had not heard a cuckoo before.”
“It is less threatening, not formal therapy.”
“It is relaxing to be there. It was good for confidence building. A formal group can be intimidating.”
“There were benefits gained in users mood and mental health.”
“There were opportunities which allowed discussion of everyday things and also just laughing and joking about things.”
“It was good to have a common purpose as a group.”
“It was spot on. I thought it went very well. A success. It would have been better if the conservation day had been later say the 2nd or 3rd session so they could have got used to the place and got to appreciate it before doing conservation on it. Also it was a bit strenuous for some not used to exercise even though we would not think it was.”
“It was less formal than a meeting or group session. ”
“The fact that they felt they could use the resource themselves was good. And it promoted independence in those that made their own way there.”
“It helped a lot of them with confidence to take the next step. They may not go out on their own but they might now go out with friends when they would not have done in the past.”
For a copy of the full report please contact Andy McGeeney

The Skylark

Once a week a group of men and women over 65 living in the East of London met up with their occupational therapists to socialize and get support. Going through the life changes of retirement, bereavement and increasing age seemed to have brought on anxiety and depression for many of the group members and they were struggling to cope, but getting something from meeting as a group.

Meeting the group and agreeing aims

I was asked if I would introduce the group to the countryside and I agreed to meet up with them to find out who they were and what they wanted to do. I asked them if they liked going for walks and seeing nature, yes someone had a bird feeder in their garden, but despite liking the countryside no one actually went for walks. Why was that? Well they weren’t sure where to go, how to get there and if it was ok to walk on open land – someone might tell them to clear off. And what do you do when you get there anyway? We talked about various options. At the time I worked for a Community Forest which encouraged people to get involved in the great outdoors by among other things improving access and information for people living in towns and cities. Here we had a group that I felt could benefit from being in nature and yet they did not know that wild green space was near to where they lived. There seemed to be so many barriers to these people being in nature even though they liked the idea. I was confident that if I could give them a start they would see that the barriers were self created and not insurmountable. I said to them, if I designed a programme of walks that got rid of or reduced these barriers to them going in to nature would they be interested and come with me? Yes was the answer, they would come. I agreed to go away and design a programme that was interesting, easy to access from where they lived, and safe.

Learning to tune in to Nature

The idea was to introduce them to Nature in places they could go back to later on if they wanted to. One of the first things we did was go for a walk across the local county park, a wild area of woods, river, ponds and open grassland surrounded by housing estates and industrial sites but big enough to feel you were somewhere special in nature. It was a spring day and we were out listening to the birds and trying to distinguish their different calls and songs. People were enjoying themselves in the fresh air but not really noticing anything unless it was pointed out. I realized that these people had not learnt how to observe in the way that came so naturally to me that I wasn’t even aware I was doing it. My eyes go to any slight movement in the bushes or a dark spot crossing the sky and immediately I have a reference point to many other experiences that enable me to classify and know that I’m looking at a green woodpecker or a thrush. By the time most people have focused on the right area the bird had disappeared, so the beginning of the walk was frustrating for some. Fortunately birdsong was easier to pinpoint and separate out from background noise.

Rising above it all

At one stage we were walking out across a large open area of meadow and I was at the back to make sure no one got left behind. I turned and noticed a woman next to me looking a bit anxious. What’s up, I said, are you ok? No I feel scared, I don’t like it out here. I asked the group to hold on a minute. She was getting increasingly anxious and apprehensive about moving on. The group stopped and gathered round, some trying to reassure her. Initially I was at a loss as to what to do as we were a long way out in the open grassland and verbal reassurance was having no effect on her anxiety about being in the open. As I stood there next her to listening to what she was saying another sound came in to my consciousness, and without thinking I spontaneously said to the group, listen can you hear that song it’s a skylark and its singing right above us. Everyone strained to listen to where the song was coming from. I explained that the skylark was high up above us and was not easy to see; but we did eventually spot the bird as it hung suspended in the sky, pouring out its rippling song. As a group we became absorbed in the song and watching the skylark being so alive. Eventually the bird cascaded down to earth in stages and disappeared in the long grass. The somber tired looking group came alive with excitement. People began talking with interest, A couple of people said they had never heard a skylark before in their lives and had wondered what it sounded like; it was exciting for everyone to be engaged in the activity of the world. I felt the members of the group had been in the moment for a while, not worrying about death or loneliness or whatever it was that filled their minds so often. The skylark had broken a spell over them.

I suggested we walk on and keep our eyes and ears out for more birds. I turned again to the woman who had been so frozen with fear a few minutes ago and asked how she was. I’m fine she said, that was so beautiful hearing the skylark, I forgot all about my being frightened, and I’m ok now.

Alive in Nature

So what was happening to her? Was she momentarily distracted from her panic attack, did she forget what it was she usually feels out in open spaces? Maybe, but I think something more was happening. Nature is alive as we are. It feels different to be standing in a field as compared to a street with lampposts and telegraph poles above you. I think the woman was distracted by me saying, what’s that, listen, but it wasn’t momentary; she was taken out of her confining self with all its anxious thought patterns and drawn to a bird singing, some other being that was alive, real and outside of her. When we watch a tv screen we are still in our heads, imagining; when we watch and listen to living things around us we are participating in a sensory way that takes us out of our confining selves and reminds us we are full participants of the natural world.