“There are moments when all anxiety and stated toil are becalmed in the infinite leisure and repose of nature.”
Henry David Thoreau
Just a quick warning. While I won’t be going into any real details about mental health stuff I will be mentioning suicidal thoughts, PTSD related issues and good old fashioned anxiety and depression.
Never Been Happier To Participate In A Study
So recently I have been really fortunate to participate in a trial for a treatment (I guess) for people with mental health problems, Blue Prescriptions.
Blue Prescriptions was a trial that ran at Slimbridge Wetland Centre, a piece of preserved wetlands in Gloucestershire that isn’t too far away from where I currently live. The idea was basically: can being in nature, walking around and interacting with animals/birds etc. have a positive effect on people with mental health issues?
I have talked about my personal mental health problems on this site in the past and while I won’t be going into them in great detail, I thought it was important to clarify…
I have recently been going through PTSD therapy for various issues in my life and it has been a rollercoaster of emotions, panic attacks, nightmares and all the other good stuff that comes from having a horrible past. So it turned out that this programme/trial came at a pretty good time to test out its premise of “can this kind of thing help people with mental illness”. Spoiler alert, the answer is a resounding yes. But anyway, let’s get back to the story shall we?
The programme ran for six weeks, and each and every week was brilliant. It really gave me something to look forward to every week, and being around the animals/birds was a really calming experience.
Another spoiler: there will be a lot of pictures.
Throughout the programme, we were shown around the whole reserve, from the opening ponds where most of the birds gathered –
– to the beautifully serene banks of the river Severn.
And one of the best things to enjoy was that the programme took place in the spring, so I got to spend a lot of time getting to enjoy these little guys’ company.
It was a truly great experience to come back every week and see the chicks grow from tiny to slightly less tiny.
It was also a chance to be closer to these birds that these types of reserve can offer. They are so used to people wandering around that they won’t even wake up from their naps.
Every step felt like a privileged look at the way the trust operates, and accomplish the wonderful things they do. The staff that walked around with us were great.
This was perhaps the best part of the experience. We were escorted round by the staff, and their enthusiasm for their jobs was so contagious. Listening to someone describe how they help ring the ducks with a smile on their face is a joy to behold, let alone be around and be part of.
The staff were always friendly, happy to answer questions, never rushed anyone beyond their capability, and they were never patronising.
I have been part of a few groups/trials over the years that deal with people with mental health issues and one of the biggest complaints I’ve always had is that people tend to talk to me like I’m six years old. I’m sure their intentions are perfectly well meant, but there seems to be a misunderstanding across the board that mental health problems = learning disabilities, and that feels so patronising. I can honestly say, hand on heart, that this was not an issue at Slimbridge.
One day, I had a pretty big panic attack, and they were perfectly calm and supportive about it – whereas at other places I got the overexaggerated, overbearing, “GIVE HIM SOME SPACE, HE NEEDS HELP!” response that only serves to make me feel worse.
As I said above, while this programme/trial was going on, I was in the midst of PTSD therapy. I was having nightmares and night terrors practically every night, my mood was all over the place, and I was having random sensory flashbacks. During my time at Slimbridge all of that stuff practically disappeared (that panic attack was unrelated). I was just able to relax and enjoy the serenity of the place and just be.
I’ve talked on this site before about having insomnia (as a quick example, I finally got to bed at 6:30am last night) so I regularly find myself awake for the dawn chorus (birds singing when the sun comes up), which normally any bird lover would be delighted to hear.
Unfortunately, after a decade of insomnia, all the dawn chorus means for me is a feeling of remorse that I’ve spent yet another night wasting my life sitting alone in the dark. This coupled with the fact that I am basically a hermit these days (I only really leave the house for shopping and doctors appointments sadly), I think it’s fair to say that over the last decade I’ve lost that connection to enjoying nature somewhat.
That alone is depressing to think about.
But something I can definitely say to the wonderful people that work at Slimbridge: you gave me that connection back. Even if it was only for one day a week, I was actually waking up and looking forward to going outside. I was coming back with a smile on my face, and not feeling terrible 24 hours a day. I had a reason to get up and I had a reason to learn new things that weren’t “how much is my next health issue likely to ruin me this week?”.
The best way someone described the experience was: “it’s like having a three hour holiday every week where you don’t have to think about the real world”.
That statement is so spot on. For that one period every week it wasn’t so much that you didn’t have to think about your issues, but they didn’t consume you. For giving me that experience, that relief of not having to exist in a negative state, I cannot thank them enough and I hope this programme (and hopefully others like it) can continue to give people that three hour holiday so many people need.
The Problem With Mental Healthcare
The only real negative piece of feedback I have about the programme isn’t about the actual programme. It’s the damned questionnaire at the end that is now part and parcel of these type of programmes.
If you haven’t had the privilege of filling one of these out, I’ll share some of the questions you can expect:
- Has this experience improved your mental health?
- Do you feel less depressed?
- Do you feel less anxious?
Now those might seem like perfectly normal questions but these type of question always lack the same thing: context. They are far too generalising.
While I was at Slimbridge I was less anxious, my depression didn’t affect me as much, and I didn’t feel haunted by PTSD. But it wasn’t a cure, and the people who set these programmes up never seem to understand that.
When I went home I wasn’t suddenly a different person. My decade-long depression/anxiety didn’t suddenly dissolve because I spent three hours on six days over six weeks outside amongst birds. For the other six days a week I was still a depressed insomniac who could spend three hours getting out of bed because I had no motivation to just get up.
Now I understand that these programmes need to show results so the higher-ups will agree to funding. I also understand that you can’t have a different programme set up for every day of the week just to keep people “entertained/occupied”. But we still seem to be stuck in the black or white model of approaching mental health awareness – everything either helps 100% or is worthless. We seem to have lost the appreciation of the grey areas in life/healthcare.
I have no doubt that if this programme was a regular thing that over time it would certainly benefit my mental health in the long run.
Needing to get up early (for me) one day a week every week would definitely impact my insomnia positively. Having a reason to go outside every week would definitely help my health in general and give me something to look forward to that isn’t sat at my desk. Being able to enjoy just existing in peace would definitely impact my capability to cope with stuff like PTSD in the long run, especially in combination with CBT therapy.
Like I say, this isn’t a complaint against the programme – this is a problem across all of the mental healthcare system.
Sorry to keep going back to this, but it’s a good example:
My current run of PTSD therapy is 12 sessions (of which I have four left) and once those 12 sessions are up I then re-enter the queue, which last time took eight months. I can pretty much guarantee those last four sessions won’t be enough to teach me coping mechanisms sufficiently enough and then I’ll just slip and have to restart in six-eight months’ time with someone new.
Again, I understand that the NHS is under a lot of pressure, and there are too many patients and not enough doctors, and it would be selfish to expect the system to deal with just me before it moves on. But it is unavoidable that this current system just doesn’t work. Expecting miracles from six weeks is not the way people should be looking at these kind of programmes.
I just want to reiterate that all that complaining above is not directed at Slimbridge, any of its staff, or the programme I was involved in. All that stuff was amazing. It was a complaint against the healthcare system in general, and I can only apologise for it bringing down a post that should be full of positivity. So let’s get back to some of that niceness.
Quote Me On This
I absolutely loved the Blue Prescriptions programme. It was a genuine privilege to be part of the test group, and I hope that my feedback is helpful in fine-tuning it for future participants.
If any of the staff involved end up reading any of this, then I just want you to know you are awesome, wonderful people. Your passion for your job is clear as day and so so contagious. You are the perfect people for doing this kind of programme, and it was great to meet such fantastic people doing fantastic work. Much love to all of you, keep being awesome.
And if any higher-up decision-makers are reading this, then all I can really say is: try not to think too much with your wallets. This programme was definitely beneficial, and carrying it on would definitely help the people of Gloucestershire get outside and re-connect with and enjoy nature. Programmes like this should be everywhere around the country. The people involved are great and you should try to be too.
Thanks for reading, guys. Until next time, remember to care of yourselves. Peace.
After some serious talking, just enjoy this video of a Beaver/Marmot screaming. I don’t care if it’s fake, it’s still hilarious.