Walking South Downs National Park for Mental Health and Wellbeing

A groundbreaking plan launches to make the South Downs National Park a “natural health service” for the South East.

Coinciding with Mental Health Awareness Week, the National Park’s first Health and Wellbeing Strategy sets out a bold vision to connect more people with nature to help improve both mental and physical health.

The plans include working with GPs, healthcare and community-based providers to deliver more opportunities for “green social prescribing”. Sometimes called community referrals, a GP or social prescriber may refer a patient for non-clinical services that boost health, such as walking or cycling in the South Downs,  becoming involved in arts based activities or surveying wildlife.

The long-term strategy also identifies priority areas in the region where the Authority will work with communities, partners and healthcare providers to help more people discover the wellness benefits of the National Park. 

It comes as robust research shows that spending time in green spaces has a measurable positive impact on people’s health.

The growing evidence shows that people who have accessed green spaces report a reduction in stress, fatigue, anxiety and depression.

Last month an ONS study reported that more than 40% of people say nature, wildlife and visiting local green spaces have been even more important to their wellbeing since the coronavirus restrictions began. 

The Health and Wellbeing Strategy was approved by Members of the National Park Authority at a meeting in March. Kate Drake, Health and Wellbeing Officer for the National Park, said: “We’ve long known that National Parks are places for escape, adventure, enjoyment and inspiration.“

But we also know that these amazing natural assets, including the South Downs, are underused in terms of the benefits they offer for people’s health and wellbeing and in particular those dealing with stress, anxiety, depression and loneliness. 

“We’ve only really scratched the surface of what the South Downs National Park can offer as part of a natural health service and that’s why our first Health and Wellbeing Strategy is so important. It clearly sets out our stall of what we want to achieve over the next decade – becoming a hub for health and wellbeing opportunities for communities across the region.“

A key part will be working with partners and healthcare providers on specific projects, but we must not also forget that a big part of this is about engagement. We want to start by planting the seed that getting out into nature is beneficial on many levels.

This strategy will help that grow and we’re really excited to get started. ”Key goals of the strategy include: 
Develop projects and collaborations that link to the “NHS Five Ways to Mental Health and Wellbeing” – be active, keep learning, give to others, connect and be mindful.

Work to give access to nature and green space to new audiences, including those from areas of deprivation, young people, people with disabilities, and those from black and ethnically-diverse communities.

Develop with partners a range of activities that provide opportunities for physical activity, connecting with the landscape through arts and heritage and volunteering opportunities.

Develop “taster days” to show people the wide range of benefits of nature-based activities.

Providing up-to-date and user-friendly information to health professionals across the region so they can better understand the National Park and how to access it for health and wellbeing.

Kate added: “We’ve set some ambitious goals and one of the keys will be partnership working. We really want to bring individuals and organisations on this journey with us and hope that in five years’ time many more people will be looking to this amazing natural space on their doorstep as a way to boost mental and physical health.”

The National Park has started up a dedicated website section, which will be developed further to provide resources for both the public and professionals on health and wellbeing.

It includes tips on topics such as forest bathing and covers examples of some of the project work.

Visit www.southdowns.gov.uk/health-wellbeing/ for more information and details of how to get in touch with the Authority.

The work forms one of the 10 outcomes of the Authority’s Partnership Management Plan, which sets out priorities for the National Park until 2025.

To mark Stress Awareness Month last month, the National Park has also launched a simple relaxation and mindfulness video that can be seen here.

Defra’s 25-year Environment Strategy has an aim to connect people with the environment to improve health and well-being, specifically making reference to the roll out of social prescribing. 

The NHS Long Term Plan puts more emphasis on prevention, including social prescribing.

Mental illness accounts for 23 per cent of all ill-health in England and affects more than one in four of the population at any time.

The Government estimates that obesity costs the NHS £5 billion every year.

With over 50 per cent of the population living within one hour’s travel of a National Park, the National Parks can support measures to help improve health and wellbeing objectives.

The South Downs National Park has a population of 117,000 people and 2.2m people live within 10km of its boundary.

The National Park’s first Health and Wellbeing Officer was appointed two years ago and a number of projects have successfully demonstrated what can be achieved.

Charity Artscape took groups of people experiencing social isolation to the top of Butser Hill to gain inspiration from the landscape to then create art that culminated in a beautiful art exhibition in Horndean.

Meanwhile, Creative Waves has worked with local people, some experiencing physical and mental health issues, to create a stunning exhibition inspired by people’s walks on the South Downs. The exhibition is on display at Worthing Pier throughout this spring and summer.



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