National Parks contribute to the mental and physical health of the nation. They provide a place for escape, adventure, enjoyment, inspiration and reflection and are used by many millions of people. They provide places to replenish the soul. They are a significant part of the natural health service, and complement the opportunities available in Areas of Oustanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) and other green spaces.
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 hours travel of a National Park, the National Parks can support measures to help improve health and well-being objectives.
National Parks England is working closely with Public Health England nationally on this agenda via a partnership launched in September 2017. Meanwhile, at a local level National Park Authorities (NPAs) are working productively with Health and Well-Being Boards, Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) and a host of partners on innovative schemes. These range from measures to promote greater physical activity such as walking and cycling; creating opportunities for volunteering, and supporting groups of people managing long term conditions to benefit from all that the National Parks can offer.
National Parks for National Health – A Powerful network
Broads – a Digital Biathlon encouraging children to get outdoors
Over the summer the Broads Authority launched a unique pilot project, a Digital Biathlon, developed through the Water, Mills and Marshes scheme in collaboration with local school children in years 7-8. The two-mile team events have seen over 212 children either walking or jogging a clearly defined outdoor course that combined smartphone photography, exercise, wildlife, the outdoors and digital media in a points-based challenge.
Participants reported feeling a sense of pride in themselves and their communities and spoke of the enjoyment gained through taking responsibility for planning and running the events. The future primary recruitment areas for the project, which is targeting 10,000 participants, are the urban areas of Norwich and Great Yarmouth. Stephen Hearn, Head Teacher of Dell Primary School said “As a school we are always looking for ways to engage our pupils in activities that involve them coming into contact with the great outdoors. This project has certainly achieved this!”
Dartmoor – Working with GPs to evaluate the power of the environment for health
This December the Naturally Healthy Project, a successful three-year collaborative project between the Dartmoor National Park Authority and Devon County Council Public Health, based in Buckfastleigh, will draw to a close. Its key aim has been to evaluate the benefits to mental and emotional health and wellbeing of interaction and engagement with the landscapes, wildlife habitats and recreational opportunities the National Park provides. The project has evolved through working alongside partners with the expectation that it can continue as a self-sustaining legacy in the form of a Naturally Healthy support group.
Ongoing project evaluation methods involving Plymouth University are being used to understand barriers and opportunities for engaging individuals and communities in the national park environment. One participant said, “It’s good to be doing something different and be out in the fresh air … Making you feel better away from the stresses at home with other people who share your experiences”. A full report and practitioner toolkit are anticipated for December 2017.
The project will continue as a self-sustaining legacy in the form of a Naturally Healthy support group.
Exmoor – Moor to Enjoy helping to lift people’s spirits and getting active
The Moor to Enjoy project (2015-2018) is connecting local groups from the periphery of Exmoor National Park with the natural environment. Its focus is upon increasing the health and wellbeing of the groups’ members and is structured around the Five Ways to Wellbeing, developed by the New Economics Foundation.
Its intention is to achieve this through establishing networks of professionals and practitioners working in both the environment and countryside, and the health, wellbeing and social care sectors and strengthening connections between them. The project has enabled new partnerships to be established with local authority public health teams, county sports groups and Public Health England.
Mid-project evaluation shows that of the 508 people who have taken part so far, 38% report being more physically active, 74% feel more relaxed afterwards and 87% have felt their spirits lifted through participating (figures provided by Exmoor National Park Authority).
Lake District - Enjoying and learning about a World Heritage Landscape on Bike
Now boasting World Heritage Site status, the Lake District is uniquely placed to offer some of the country’s best outdoor opportunities for being active and getting fit. With an exciting programme of 60 free bike rides, and around 250 walks, all with experienced guides, it is the perfect place for enjoying spectacular scenery while boosting health and wellbeing.
Dave Robinson, Lake District National Park adviser for recreation and sustainable transport, explained the bike rides had come courtesy of a partnership between British Cycling and HSBC UK Guided Rides. He added: “They mean all ages and abilities can get out and enjoy everything our amazing national park has to offer – for free.”
New Forest – Using Wild Play to help families reconnect with nature and the outdoors
The New Forest’s Wild Play Project promotes unstructured play activities in the outdoors which often take place in natural or ‘wild’ areas. A 2012 study by Stephen Moss, Natural Childhood, highlighted that fewer than 10% of children now play in wild places, a 50% reduction on the figure for the previous generation.
The initiative welcomes hundreds of people at each of the three wild play day events it runs annually. Wild and natural play has shown to be a great way for families to keep active and connect to nature creatively, a proven means of promoting health and wellbeing. There are two permanent wild play day sites being established in Holbury and Sway, with a third in the pipeline.
Suzi Shilling, Wildplay Project Officer for the New Forest National Park Authority, said: ‘A wild play day is a brilliant opportunity to get children really engaged with what is on their doorstep and show parents how spending time outside is good for not only their family’s health, but also their curiosity of the world around them.’
Northumberland – Working with MIND and others to raise awareness on mental health
Northumberland National Park Authority has run mental health awareness sessions for all staff designed by regional MIND staff. The primary purpose for these sessions is to ensure mental health resilience at work, but these sessions have also acted as a reminder of potential mental health needs of audiences who are engaging with the Northumberland National Park as a place.
The National Park Authority Walk to Wellbeing programme is in its 8th year. It is designed to give progression to Health Walk participants and/or a gentle introduction for walkers wanting to experience a more challenging walking experience. Walk to Wellbeing volunteers, who are already trained on the physical needs of walk participants have also received training from MIND.
One member of staff who has experienced a suicide in his family has worked with Northumberland therapy providers Talking Matters and sports facility providers Active Northumberland to prepare a bid to Sport England to train volunteers to support people with mental health issues to include activity in their recovery programme.
North York Moors – Fantastic Families and Scout Groups help ensure the Cleveland Way remains in tip top condition
The Explorer Club engages whole families in exploring and caring for the North York Moors. It was created by the North York Moors National Park Authority’s Volunteer Service and works directly with families living both within and on the periphery of the Park. The National Park Authority is keen to expand these links to nearby urban communities continues.
Having signed up to the scheme families undertake a programme of conservation, countryside management research and play in the National Park, whilst studying for a John Muir Discovery Award. Having completed the 6-month programme they are invited to join various National Park programmes. One of these is the Cleveland Way adoption scheme through which a family adopts a three mile stretch of the National Trail and makes visits to survey, report on and carry out basic maintenance such as drain clearing, vegetation cutback and litter-picking. Following a successful recruitment drive which offered the opportunity for other families and groups to get involved with the programme, it has proved so successful that all 109 miles of the National Trail have now been adopted.
Feedback from the families and groups who have been adopting sections confirms that the scheme enhances health and wellbeing, improves family relationships and inspires young people about nature. Building on its early successes, the Explorer Club has recently been expanded to include 12 new families joining and there is now a waiting list for future programmes. A monitoring framework is being developed to more accurately assess the health and wellbeing impacts of the scheme and make it more effective where possible.
Peak District – Offering outdoor activities for those suffering mental health conditions
The Exploring the Peaks program has been working with clients from the Early Intervention Services (EIS) of Manchester and Rotherham who have had their first instance of psychotic illness. A partnership with the Peak District National Park Authority was developed after EIS staff recognised a need for young clients between the ages of 13-35 to experience outdoor-focused activities in addition to those urban-based activities already offered. The project has seen three groups of clients have regular weekly visits to the Peak District over 8-week period, with a program of events including building confidence in accessing the outdoors, knowledge of the natural environment and conservation tasks.
Clients who participated have described having experienced being “relaxed and calm” associated with getting outside. Project staff reported how one client found the motivation to undertake a challenging morning commute for a program-arranged work placement in the Peak District because of how much he was enjoying the conservation tasks he was doing. The opportunity gave him “… just the boost he needed before applying for work and the experience he needed to show prospective employers.”
South Downs – Supporting recovery and feeling better through activities in nature
GROW is an independent charitable organisation in the South Downs National Park run by people with personal experience of mental health issues. Grow’s aims are to improve and maintain wellbeing amongst people with lived experience of mental ill-health, by supporting and enabling them to access the therapeutic benefits of being out in nature.
Grow started as a pilot project within Mind in Brighton and Hove which organised a number of activities for within the Sussex countryside at Saddlescombe Farm. The National Park Authority has provided support by leading events and training sessions as well as provided guided walks. The walks focus on connecting participants with nature and have either been general wanders or concentrated on a specific activity such as looking at tree identification or birds.
Consultations with those who used mental health services led the National Park Authority to believe that people with enduring mental health difficulties find it challenging to access the therapeutic benefits of the countryside; and moreover that they’d like support to do so. Evaluation of the project has shown that 87.5% of participants reported that Grow has had a significant or great benefit to their mental health, and 63.6% found the same for their physical health. 65% believed they were likely to use mental health services less as a result of the wellbeing effects of Grow.
Grow continues to offer free of charge and paid for activities, courses and training throughout the year. Participants have said: “I'm less isolated, more optimistic and connected to others. It's been so refreshing to learn how to focus on the beauty of the environment rather than my illness.”
“In an area which is often neglected – mental health – and where conventional treatment all too often tends to involve sitting in a room processing, GROW stands out for me as something radically different – and a little bit magic too.”
Yorkshire Dales – Experience Buses helping making sure the National Park is for everyone
The last of the summer’s Yorkshire Dales Experience Buses has just arrived in the National Park. Part of a pilot project led by Dales and Bowland Community Interest Company and supported by the National Park Authority and community workers, the journey is one of six that have transported 230 people from inner city Bradford into the park to participate in walks and activities run by the National Park Authority and the National Trust.
Most people were first time visitors and their participation was particularly pertinent since the general visitor profile for the park does not reflect the demographic profile of the areas where visitors are coming from. Most visitors were connected to the project through community centres which subsidised the price to increase affordability. Return journeys on the fully booked buses cost £5 per person and a small number of free tickets were made available for families who would otherwise not have been able to afford the trip. A concerted effort has been made to break down the barriers preventing conventionally marginalised groups from enjoying the health benefits of visiting National Parks, including the selection of community ambassadors who have acted as champions for the visits.
An evaluation of the effects upon health and well-being upon participants is ongoing. If this is proven to be a cost-effective way of bringing groups from deprived communities into the National Park, then an expanded programme including more targeted communities will be planned (subject to funding) for 2018.