More people are feeling the benefit of nature-based activities in Greater Manchester, thanks to national funding to develop green social prescribing across the region.

Greater Manchester was selected as one of seven government ‘Green Social Prescribing Test and Learn’ sites and awarded £500,000 to fund two-year nature-based pilot projects to tackle and prevent mental ill-health.

18 months into the two-year programme, more than 715 people have been referred by their GPs or other health and care professionals to 580 nature-based activities provided by 60 groups.

People across Greater Manchester have said activities such as community food growing, forest school, allotments, bee keeping, walks, canal preservation, wood working, conservation and outdoor circus skills are increasing their life satisfaction and happiness, and lowering their feelings of anxiety.

Nature for Health, Greater Manchester’s green social prescribing programme, is funded as part of a cross governmental project, with contributions from NHS England, Sport England and National Academy of Social Prescribing, and managed by NHS GM. It aims to develop the infrastructure needed to support more nature-based groups, encourage more diverse activities and support professionals to refer, and people to use, our natural spaces.

Almost 400 people from Greater Manchester’s green providers, social prescribers, voluntary organisations and community initiatives are coming together with health, social care and public health to learn how we can connect many more people with nature-based activities to support their health and wellbeing.

Jon Grace, nature for health manager at NHS GM said: “We know that many of us find green space hugely important to our health and wellbeing but there are still challenges stopping people from spending time in nature – transport, cost of items such as suitable footwear and finding the right activity nearby.

The potential is huge to improve mental health, reduce health inequalities, reduce demand on the health and social care system, and to make green social activities more accessible to everyone in the city-region, so we are determined to develop more opportunities for people, and learn how to overcome challenges together.”

Deepa, an asylum seeker with leave to remain, was sexually assaulted by a family member and mentally abused by extended family when she first arrived in England.

After meeting her husband and having two children, she was widowed leaving her to bring up her children alone. Difficulty dealing with the loss of husband, lack of purpose, grief, racism and depression led Deepa to speaking to her GP.

Deepa was supported to join a local gardening session and said: “I have relaxed. I have been given a chance to socialise and feel people listen to me, plus I learn something like gardening.

“I’ve joined a nice group. I just enjoy my time when I’m here. I want to learn more about the different produce and want to do some training or volunteering that would help me get a job I enjoy.

“I am learning English now too. My girls also like it. They were sad in the holidays that we didn’t have family or friends. They came and smiled. We had a good time together.”

As part of the Nature for Health programme, Pennine Care NHS Foundation Trust’s early intervention and physical health teams have been working with Lancashire Wildlife Trust in Bury and Petrus in Rochdale to support people experiencing psychosis and promote healthy living, socialisation, and access to services with great results.

One person who uses the early intervention service and took part said: “I feel different, just being with people outside has made me happier.”

Dr Natasha Goakes, a clinical psychologist at Pennine Care NHS Foundation Trust said: “For the mind, being in nature lifts mood, increases focus and social engagement, and boosts confidence. Activities bring a physical element too, keeping bodies active and promoting continuous exercise.

“Building bird boxes, recording our ponds’ wildlife, researching the local flora and fauna and maintaining green space all helps the local area so we all feel a sense of contribution to the community too.

“From a clinical perspective, green social prescribing is beneficial to mental health in terms of connectedness to the world and other people – it’s a big help for feelings of isolation and lifting mood.”

Read more about Pennine Care NHS Foundation Trust’s work and plans.

All Nature for Health initiatives are building on Greater Manchester’s already well-established social prescribing offer to engage with individuals most at risk of developing poor mental health and create the activities and support they need, while making the most of the natural environment.

In March 2023 an evaluation will be compiled by the University of Sheffield, pulling together learnings from across the country. It is hoped this evidence will help unlock more funding.

Watch BBC North West Tonight coverage of Nature for Health.

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