As we emerge from the isolation of lockdown, which has taken a huge toll on people’s mental health, being active outdoors and connecting with nature, with members of your community or friends or family, has never been more important.
We’re working with a wide range of community groups and funding projects that tap into the resources of the natural world to improve mental wellbeing and reduce social isolation.
As we come to the end of Mental Health Awareness Week, with this year’s theme of ‘connecting with nature’, our mental health team is also organising events across the county, including nature walks and wild swimming sessions.
“There is a huge amount of evidence to show that physical exercise and getting out into the fresh air and enjoying nature and walking in the countryside has a huge benefit on mental health and our own sense of well-being,” said Richard Webb, County Council Director for Health and Adult Services. “For this reason we are backing initiatives and projects across the county – from running groups to gardening clubs – that promote physical activity as a support for mental health.”
North Yorkshire’s Director of Public Health, Louise Wallace, added: “As mental health affects one in four people, it is important to mark this week, encourage conversations about mental wellbeing and support this year’s theme.”
In Skipton, an organisation has emerged to help, with assistance aimed at gently re-acclimatising people to familiar activities while enjoying life outdoors.
The Ground Yourself in Green project has grown from the Skipton Step into Action group, which was appointed as a community support organisation by the County Council at the start of the pandemic.
The new organisation involved linking up with the town's Incredible Edible group as well as Knaresborough-based Yorkshire Yoga and mindfulness tutors, to offer a range of options for those in need of help.
While the scheme was denied a smooth start by the last lockdown – yoga lessons had to move online because of social distancing rules – the group has now begun to hold sessions where those attending can meet, while adhering to current restrictions.
The group is making use of Skipton's Aireville Park for many of its sessions, which include two yoga and two mindfulness sessions each Thursday until September.
They have also gained access to Incredible Edible flowerbeds and planters, providing access for those with mobility restrictions, while a Friday allotment session has also been organised, with a plot for those attending to grow their own.
The objective is to provide a range of support, which will benefit people with a variety of needs. It means, for example, carers can leave those with dementia to walk in the park with volunteers while they take a break for a mindfulness session to help their own mental wellbeing.
They can also accommodate one-to-one sessions and mix-and-match nature-based activities.
Funding for the current project is in place until September. It is hoped by that point people who want to return to normal activities like shopping or attending medical appointments, but now lack the confidence to do so, will find that situation gradually returning to normal.
Ground Yourself in Green's Sarah Wilson said: “We have had a vision for quite some time to get people outdoors, but with lockdown it had to be postponed. We were about to start a walk and talk trek in the community when lockdown came. Our vision was to be outdoors in the centre of Skipton in the lovely park with ‘nature burst’ activities.”
That has finally come to fruition with weekly sessions now launched. “The feedback we have had has been amazing,” said Sarah.
The park sessions for walks, yoga and wellbeing are supplemented by Friday allotment trips, with funding for the project supplied by the West Yorkshire and Harrogate Health Care Partnership.
One-to-one walks have been organised where clients have found that helpful and there has been a strong demand from people wanting to attend future park sessions.
“It has been brilliant, just what we wanted, the community working together,” Sarah said.
“The objective is to slowly get people back out and to integrate them into society. Some may jump straight in but others may need weeks of building up.”
Mindfulness teacher Rachel Clark said the techniques used were very helpful to aid relaxation, improve mood and sleeping patterns, reduce tension and stress and lower anxiety. The small Thursday groups are relaxed and friendly, providing a fun and supportive way to spend time safely with other people.
Easy, gentle techniques are taught in each session to develop awareness of the body and breath. Guided meditation, simple breathing practices and gentle mindful movement is included and are suitable for any level of experience including absolute beginners and for any physical limitations or ability.
Sessions in the park will also include some creativity, inspired by nature and the surrounding environment.
“A key part of my teaching is about having an attitude of kindness to yourself,” she said. “Often, that attitude can be absent. People can be kind to their friends, their pets but not themselves. Kindness and compassion are absolutely transformative to our mood and health.”
While the scheme is funded until September, the long-term aim is for it to continue, with an ambition to find premises to use as a base.
Sarah said taking part was rewarding for volunteers: “I just love making a difference, what you give you get back. It is amazing to see how it has affected each and every one of those involved.”
The service has proved a positive experience for Philip Mawson, who has made use of both the mindfulness sessions and allotment work.
“It is good for me to be in a group and good to get to know people with similar interests,” he said.
Philip has a longstanding problem with anxiety and said the activities were helping him, along with the Skipton Step into Action service, which regularly checked on his welfare.
Carla Finnigan is among those to benefit from attending early Ground Yourself in Green events, enjoying yoga, the allotment and taking part in mindfulness sessions.
She got involved after learning of the project through Skipton Step into Action, which had been helping with her shopping during the pandemic.
Carla said: “I have got more and more involved. I have met so many lovely people, who I would not have met had it not been for the lockdown. It is a lovely group of people and it was a great idea to put these events on. It gives people hope.”