paddling in river

Mental Health Awareness Week: People and nature can heal each other

It’s no surprise that, at The Rivers Trust, we are big believers in the power of nature to reduce stress or anxiety and improve mental wellbeing. Getting outside and being in green and blue spaces has been a lifeline for many of us, particularly over the past year or so. 

Rebecca Duncan


This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, and the theme is one we can really get on board with: Connect with Nature.

It’s no surprise that, at The Rivers Trust, we are big believers in the power of nature to reduce stress or anxiety and improve mental wellbeing. Getting outside and being in green and blue spaces has been a lifeline for many of us, particularly over the past year or so. As Mark Rowland, Chief Executive of the Mental Health Foundation, puts it: “Nature is our great untapped resource for a mentally healthy future.”[i]

But what we also know is that nature is currently not accessible for many people:

  • 69 million people in the UK do not live within a 10-minute walk of a green space.
  • Almost 40% of people from ethnic minority backgrounds live in the most greenspace-deprived areas, compared to 14% of white people.
  • 29% of those living with a long-term illness or condition said they had not visited a natural space in the previous month, compared to 18% of those without a long-term illness or condition[ii].

It’s important to us that everyone is able to experience the benefits to health and wellbeing that spending time around – or in – rivers. These statistics highlight that we’re still some way from making that vision a reality.

Despite this rather grim picture, there is work happening across the Rivers Trust movement to brighten the outlook. Working with the Greggs Foundation, several of our local member Trusts have been exploring social prescribing opportunities for people struggling with their mental health and may otherwise struggle to access nature.

The River Starts Here – Trent Rivers Trust

In 2019, Trent Rivers Trust began working with Rethink Mental Illness’ Derbyshire support group to provide volunteering opportunities for their service users.

The Trust connected the new volunteers, who experienced difficulties across the spectrum of mental illness, with local “Friends of” groups to carry out environmental improvements including wetland creation, river meandering, litter picking, citizen science, and invasive species management. The participants also undertook their John Muir Award, underlining their newfound love of nature.

It proved to be a multi-beneficial experience for all involved, providing the new volunteers with valuable interactions with nature and a sense of accomplishment, as well as providing environmental benefits for the “Friends of” groups and the wider community.

Sadly, many of the planned activities with Rethink had to be cancelled in 2020 due to COVID-19. Despite this, links between the group and Trent Rivers Trust remain strong – one of the volunteers who came on board in 2019 has become a regular member of the local “Friends of” group. The Trust has continued its own focus on mental wellbeing, collecting mood data from its volunteering activities.

““It gives you the sense that you have done something meaningful and people have benefitted from what you have done””

– Volunteer

Restoring Brent Rivers and Communities – Thames21

With funding from the Greggs Foundation, Thames21 have been working in some of Greater London’s most deprived communities, making improvements to the environment and making connections with a local health charity, Ashford Place. Ashford Place works to prevent isolation through inclusion in the community, so Thames21 teamed up with them to provide service users with nature-based activities.

Volunteers contributed to river restoration projects which made the River Brent more accessible to local communities, carrying out litter picks and vegetation management to make a riverside footpath accessible again. They also restored a pond and monitored the water quality of the river.

According to one of Ashford Place’s mentors, the nature-based activities are providing the volunteers with a strong sense of self, counteracting depression and increasing wellbeing.

““His brain was traumatised, he was feeling disconnected. But he is doing so well in these activities with Thames21, getting close to other people… he was able to experience the sense of nurturing and it has improved his wellbeing in every aspect. After a year, I can see it has been a journey for him.””

The mentor, speaking about one of the volunteers

people holding signs in support of rivers
Thames21 Community participation during lockdown

Leven Legacy Project – Loch Lomond Fisheries Trust

Since 2019, Loch Lomond Fisheries Trust has used Greggs Foundation Funding to work with groups such as Dumbarton Area Council on Alcohol (DACA), who provide support for people affected by their own, or others people’s, problems with alcohol.

In 2019 the Trust provided a number of activities for DACA service users, including fishing tuition, citizen science monitoring, litter picking, and making bird boxes to improve wildlife habitats. Session leaders noticed an immediate increase in confidence and sense of accomplishment amongst participants.

Woman fishing with man
““I loved it and can’t wait for it to start again. It was a great experience catching my first fish. I felt really proud.””


Whilst 2020 got off to a great start for the Trust, organising a workshop with DACA to make large bird boxes for kestrels and owls along the River Leven, sessions from March onwards had to be cancelled due to the pandemic. However, outreach activities continued and the Trust carried out online activities instead. When they realised that many service users did not have regular internet access, they created a printed newsletter and posted it to DACA’ service users, to keep up the connection with them.

Remember what your river can do for you, and what you can do for your river

These projects are part of a wealth of evidence that shows the positive impact of spending time in nature, and particularly in blue spaces. So if you’re not quite feeling yourself, consider getting in touch with your local Rivers Trust to see what they can offer you – everyone is welcome in our movement.

To find out more about getting help with mental health, visit the Mental Health Foundation.

[i] Mental Health Foundation, “Why Nature

[ii] All statistics taken from Groundwork, “Out of Bounds: Equity in access to urban nature

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