Mental Health Awareness Week: Staying connected to each other and holding onto hope

With nature being the theme for this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, Ecosia's UK Country Manager Sophie Dembinski sat down with clinical psychologist and eco-therapist Suzi Tarrant to talk about the benefits of nature on wellbeing and how a hopeful and proactive approach to climate action can soothe feelings of anxiety about the climate crisis.

Connecting to nature

Much has been written about the benefits of nature on our physical and mental health. From reducing symptoms of stress, depression and anxiety to improving cognitive functioning, patient recovery and even strengthening the immune system. Why does there seem to be such a strong connection between nature and our wellbeing?

There is a huge amount of established and emerging literature on this issue. Spending time in nature can help us switch from what we call ‘directed attention’ to ‘soft fascination’. This is based on attention restoration theory where our awareness of nature helps us balance our cognitive and emotional energy throughout the day. The theory of biophilia goes further and suggests that our contact and awareness of being in nature is essential to our health and wellbeing as we evolved in the natural environment. For this reason, deepening our relationship with nature by spending time in it and caring for it, can open up our senses and provide us with an opportunity to rest and restore in a way that is very powerful and nourishing, restorative at the body-mind and soul level.  

Tip: If you don't have access to nature or the outside, you can still switch your focus of attention in a restorative way by looking at a plant on your desk; holding a natural object like a stone or a piece of wood, or listening to bird song, even if it's online.

Improving access to nature

Last year, 60% of young people in the UK reported to have spent less time outdoors since the start of the pandemic, despite 83% agreeing that being in nature made them feel very happy. Through our initiatives such as #growyourlove for the NHS and Ecosia’s community engagement program, we are committed to improving  access to nature particularly for those living in highly polluted and nature deprived areas. What more can be done to remedy inequities across the UK in terms of access to nature?

The reality is that many of our communities, even in rural areas, have very limited access to green space as so much land is privately owned. Lots of work needs to be done to open up access to coastal, river or woodland areas. Protecting or creating a green space alone isn't enough and doesn't guarantee people will use it or benefit from it fully. Local engagement, awareness raising and education are also key to ensure that new initiatives are inclusive and truly health giving and don't add to or exacerbate existing problems such as health inequities but actually address them. Communities need to be front and centre if they are going to deliver sustainable improvements in their local area.

Regenerating the earth and healing the mind

Many people around the world are experiencing a dual climate and mental health crisis, with more and more young people reporting to feel overwhelmed by the possibility of ecological breakdown and fear of experiencing traumatic climate events. We know that many people can benefit from mindfulness techniques to help with eco-anxiety so Ecosia recently launched a partnership with Insight Timer to tackle eco-anxiety through guided meditation, practical advice from a psychotherapist, and climate action. Do you have any other advice for people who are worried about the state of the environment?

The slogan “think global, act local” comes to mind.  With the climate and ecological crisis, there is a temptation to focus on a global view, especially with so much being reported from around the world.  This can start to feel overwhelming with an increasing sense of disempowerment. It's really important that young people feel empowered to act and channel their energies locally, taking small, practical steps and actions that can make a big difference in their area. It's also really important to foster a sense of community within the wider climate movement. Building connection with other like-minded people, joining a supportive group or feeling part of a movement can provide us with an opportunity to voice concerns and support each other, remind us that we are not alone and at the same time help us to stay connected with the bigger picture, but in a more manageable way.

As environmentalists it can sometimes feel very tempting to despair at the magnitude of the task we have taken on and forget how much has already been accomplished. How can we prevent burnout or feeling overwhelmed?

Whilst it is very important to educate ourselves, raise awareness and think about the climate as a global issue that affects everyone, it can very quickly become overwhelming especially when we only pick up on the bad news stories. Reflecting on positive news stories, successes and wins, no matter how small, is vital for helping to keep hope alive – and hope is really one of the most important things we have in the fight against the climate and ecological crisis. The risk is that if we focus too much on all the bad news, it can become really difficult for us to cope emotionally over the long term, as we see with the rise of eco-anxiety particularly among young people around the world. Having a balanced view and weaving in the positive stories to instill a sense of hope in us and in others is key. It’s also important to be aware that the more we deepen our relationship with nature, the more vulnerable we can be to feeling the trauma and anxiety over what humankind is doing to the earth’s ecosystems. Linking in with others who understand this and can provide a supportive and compassionate network could help us keep the passion alive without burning out, or using numbing and avoidance as a way of coping.

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