It’s natural, free and beckoning to heal us
INSTINCTIVELY, we want contact with nature – we’d all prefer the office with a park view.
An expanding body of evidence links human experience in the natural world to better health yet few doctors are aware of this. I hope this article will inspire you to bring nature into your practice and the prescription of a ‘green hour’ into your management plan for the wellbeing of not only your patients and your staff but for you also.
I like to think of contact with nature as analogous to a swimming pool, with having a natural view up the shallow end and a wilderness experience like bushwalking in an old-growth forest up the deep end. In the middle is being in the presence of nature whilst walking to work through a green space, gardening or chatting to friends in a park.
Studies have shown that patients in hospital whose views are of nature rather than buildings recover more quickly, need fewer medications and are discharged home earlier.
The Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne has taken this research on board and in its new building the majority of patient’s rooms have views of the surrounding Royal Park. Inside there is a meerkat enclosure taking up an entire wall of the outpatients department providing a fascinating experience for waiting families.
We can apply this knowledge to general practice by bringing nature into our clinics, with pictures when views are not possible, and living things like potted plants or aquariums.
Professor Mardie Townsend from Deakin University is an expert on the importance of nature contact for health – particularly mental health. She describes us as suffering from environmental deprivation when our lifestyle has led to us being cut off from regular contact with nature. This nature deprivation increases our risk of suffering from anxiety and depression.
American author Richard Louv has described disconnection from the natural world as ‘nature-deficit disorder’. Conversely, nature experiences are beneficial to our emotional wellbeing – elevating mood, reducing stress and enhancing concentration. The evidence base is outlined in beyondblue’s literature review Beyond Blue to Green.
So as well as referring our depressed patients to a psychologist I propose we should be advising them to spend a ‘green hour’ each day in a park either when walking to work or in a lunch break. This is something we should be doing ourselves too, especially on those stressful days when we need to refocus for the afternoon. I like to think of this lunchtime nature break as a preventative mental health measure.
Dr Robert Grenfell from The Heart Foundation is in the process of evaluating a recent health intervention in regional Victoria in which over 1000 participants were engaged in nature based activities for health.
GPs were able to refer patients with complex medical problems either to a website (activeinparks.org/ ) or to a supervised group walk (www.heartfoundation.org.au/Active-Living/Pages/green-walks.aspx) and other activities depending on the level of support needed. The results so far are promising and hopefully this type of program will come to other regions. In the meantime, perhaps larger clinics could run their own ‘green exercise’ walking program for suitable patients.
Up the deep end of nature experience is ‘wilderness therapy’ where time in the wild provides solace, escape and adventure. This has been shown to improve outcomes for youth with psychosocial health problems and anecdotally to this particular GP!
I hope you can now see how this spectrum of ‘nature therapy’ can benefit us all and you can start today to bring nature into your clinical practice.
Dr Dimity Williams, GP, Victorian Secretary of Doctors for the Environment Australia, and Health Adviser to the Victorian Child & Nature Connection
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