Wellbeing in the woods

13th June 2018, by Alan McDonnell, Conservation Projects Manager. Images © Trees for Life: Greenbuds 2018 volunteers

 

Trees for Life has been working with volunteers ever since it began. The vast majority of the 1.5 million trees we’ve planted so far have been put in the ground by people on our Conservation Weeks. Over the years, the volunteers and group leaders began to talk more and more about the restorative, healing power of a Conservation Week experience. It seemed that sharing time with others to bring nature back to a degraded landscape offered unique opportunities for people to explore their relationships with the natural world and with themselves. The awareness that Conservation Weeks help people’s mental wellbeing began to take hold.

 

For over 10 years now, we’ve been working with mental health charities bringing groups on Conservation Weeks. The positive feedback we get from these groups gives an idea of why the weeks are so rewarding for our staff and Group Leaders as well as the participants:

'The week exceeded my expectations in every respect, and I couldn't have dreamt of the beauty or tranquillity of the surroundings, nor how beneficial it would be in my recovery. The week will forever stay in my memory, as will the experiences I shared with new-found friends.'

 

We’ve been making these kinds of weeks a more regular feature of our calendar in recent years. We’ve learned that while the physical work of planting trees in remote parts of the Highlands takes people out of their comfort zones, our weeks give people the support they need, not just to cope but to enjoy the experience. The group atmosphere creates a camaraderie and friendships that help people to explore their emotions and rebuild self-belief in new, often life changing ways. The physical act of caring for and planting trees can be empowering. So far, we’ve found that these experiences are giving the participants greater confidence and self-esteem when they go home.

One of our mental health partners, Greenbuds, from the Dundee Association for Mental Health, focuses on supporting individuals to access the outdoors to improve mental wellbeing and have been bringing supported groups of ten or so participants to our Dundreggan estate for the last four years. With them, we’re now trialling a next step which involves two Greenbuds participants joining a Conservation Week with eight other volunteers they have never met before. We hoped that the increased challenge of new social situations would increase the participant’s confidence to deal with social and group situations in their lives back at home.

 

Feedback from the trials has been very positive. As one of our Greenbuds volunteers said,

‘I love the communal living with people of diverse backgrounds. A refreshing change from normal life after which I feel rejuvenated. I will come again!’

Another offered these thoughts on how the experience had worked:

‘While at Dundreggan my worries and thoughts faded away…I was very relaxed, calm and just very comfortable in the environments both the wilderness and surprisingly around the fellow volunteers. This also allowed me to develop friendships with some of the other volunteers and was able to, surprisingly open up to them. It is and will probably remain the best week of the year and one of the defining experiences of my life.’

We are convinced that bringing people together to improve their wellbeing and look after nature is part of the answer to some of the problems faced by both society and the environment. We’ve certainly had enough early encouragement to continue and indeed extend this approach, and will keep you in touch with progress.

 

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