Woodlands for Health
Engagement with nature through outdoor activities can have a significant positive impact on people’s mental health and wellbeing. Natural environments such as woodland areas are restorative, can reduce stress, feelings of tension, anger, confusion and depression, and aid recovery from stressful events.
There is strong evidence documenting the positive relationship between physical activity and physical, mental and social health. Research has shown that coupling physical activity with the natural environment has an additive effect on the benefits of each.
Walking is the most natural form of physical activity that is accessible to all, regardless of fitness level. Walking has both preventive and treatment effects on mental health outcomes including depression, anxiety and psychological stress. With 66% of the adult population walking for recreation at least once a week, prescribing a walking in the woodlands can be effective for all.
Woodlands for Health Programme
Woodlands for Health offers a recovery focused eco-therapy programme which complements traditional mental health treatment. It involves social inclusion of people who experience mental health difficulties. The concept of the programme is simple; taking a walk in a ‘green space’ such as a local park or woodland area.
The Woodlands for Health programme was first introduced to Co. Wicklow in 2012 by Coillte in association with HSE, Mental Health Ireland, Wicklow Mental Health Association and Wicklow Sports Partnership where is continues to successfully run. In 2014, the programme was evaluated by University College Dublin and the HSE. Findings included improvements in mood and reductions in thoughts of suicide, guilt and low self-esteem.
In 2016, the programme was adopted in the Dún Laoghaire Rathdown (DLR) area of Co. Dublin where it is delivered by DLR Sports Partnership with support from Cluain Mhuire Adult Mental Health Services, HSE Health Promotion and Improvement, HSE Suicide Prevention, Coillte, Dublin Mountains Partnership, Get Ireland Walking, Mental Health Ireland, Southside Partnership and Sport Ireland.
In 2018, Get Ireland Walking in partnership with Coillte and Mental Health Ireland received funding to pilot a national dissemination of this programme. This programme was adopted successfully in Laois, Roscommon, Limerick, Wexford and Sligo. The programme is coordinated at a local level by the Local Sports Partnerships, with local level steering groups including Mental Health Ireland’s Development Officers, Mental Health Associations, HSE mental health services, HSE Health Promotion and Improvement and Coillte.
Based on the positive feedback received from participants and the care teams of participants, it is planned to continue to deliver the Woodlands for Health Programme to additional locations.
The key features of the programme are:
- 12 weeks of activity.
- All levels of fitness are welcome and the walks are adapted to the participant’s abilities.
- Walks are led by experienced volunteers, staff and rangers.
- Walk locations differ each week, starting in parks and progressing to mountain trails. Different locations are used to keep the walks interesting, familiarise the participants with multiple locations and opportunities for activity within their community, and advance to more challenging walks as the participant’s progress.
- The programme aims to develop social and networking skills.