National Parks need to count in a distressed and anxious society

  • Contributor information: CNP

17 May 2019

Campaign for National Parks’ Andrew Hall reflects on #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek and the role National Parks have to play in progress around mental health.

At some point we all feel burnt-out, anxious or unable to cope. Throughout #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek we’ve been shining a spotlight on the role that access to the countryside can play in our mental wellbeing.

What has been startling is just how many of us seek solace in the great outdoors. From TV’s Julia Bradbury to mountain legend Sir Chris Bonnington, for so many of us, being able to get outside into nature and beauty has been critical to maintaining a healthy state of mind.  

Of course the countryside is not a panacea for mental illness and for some of us may not help at all. However, the 13 National Parks in England and Wales can offer all of us something we often miss in our hectic modern lives. A chance for quiet reflection, a chance to find some peace among our thoughts.

One in four of us will experience mental health problems

Shockingly, one in four of us will experience mental health problems in Britain. Brain by Meaghan Hendricks from the Noun Project.

It’s hard to deny that getting to dramatic peaks in Snowdonia, walking the rolling fields of Exmoor or hearing the uplifting melodies of bird song in the New Forest can boost how we are feeling. This may sound idealistic but research is increasingly showing us the positive benefits of spending time in natural spaces. Mental health charity Mind, found that while one in four of us will experience mental health problems in Britain, spending time outdoors can cut the risk of depression by 30%!

Ever since their designation, these benefits have been recognised, though the way we talk about them has changed.

Indeed, Ethel Haythornthwaite, one of the key architects of the National Parks movement, sought solace in the peace and quiet of the Peak District when grieving for her husband Captain Gallimore, killed during the first world war. Recognising the importance of these landscapes inspired Ethel to campaign to protect the Peak District for all to benefit from.

Ethel Haythornthwaite

Ethel Haythornthwaite one of the leaders of the National Parks movement. Photo credit: Friends of the Peak District, CPRE.

These benefits are just one of the reasons National Parks are special. But in a society that’s increasingly suffering from poor mental health, as cases of depression and anxiety become ever more prevalent, this matters more than ever.

So what’s to be done? The countryside must figure much more prominently in our discussions around mental health. Once again in BBC’s Countryfile, the South Down’s National Park Authority Chief Executive Trevor Beattie called the service provided by the Parks our ‘Natural Health Service’. Some doctors are prescribing time in quality natural environments to their patients. We must take this further and support the National Parks in delivering a healthier, happier country.

Really this is nothing new. We’ve always known escaping to quality environments can help us, now we have to work out how to fit this into our modern lives.

It’s unsurprising this mental health crisis coincides with multiple crises in our natural world. As we have reduced space for nature we’ve diminished the very places that can help us when we feel distressed or anxious.

the view from Snowdon. Snowdonia National Park Authority

Is there a better place to clear the mind? The view from Snowdon. Photo credit: Snowdonia National Park Authority.

So the National Parks have to be defended. As the charity dedicated to them, Campaign for National Parks knows all too well the threats facing these incredible and important landscapes. Climate change, development, congestion all threaten the reasons we love these places and the benefits we derive from them.

We cannot take these places for granted. The benefits to our wellbeing that we enjoy now will diminish as they weaken. That’s why we are acting to influence Government policy to improve protections for each and every National Park in England and Wales.

We have to act to protect them for the sake of our present and future happiness.

By Andrew Hall

Campaign for National Parks