Landmark research puts a monetary value on the benefits of woodland visits

Believe it or not, despite the colossal environmental damage caused by the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989, the oil spill showed up as a net economic gain because the money spent on the clean-up effort boosted US GDP. There are encouraging signs that we are at last starting to move beyond growth figures — and particularly gross domestic product (GDP) — as the primary way to measure how well we are doing. A 2021 UK Treasury-commissioned review proposed changing how we measure national wealth, moving away from equating progress with GDP and recognising the importance of natural capital. So it is doubtless overstating the case to claim that governments only seem to take an interest in things they can put a monetary (and therefore quantifiable and measurable) value on. But just in case it is still true, we now have groundbreaking research carried out by Forest Research, who have found a method for putting a value on the mental health benefits associated with the UK’s woodlands: their headline figure is £185 million per year.

The research is another reminder of why we need to protect and invest in our woodlands and green spaces — and ensure good (and free) access for all.

If people spend 30 minutes a week in trees, doing whatever they like — walking, sitting meditating — there are noticeable benefits. It’s amazing how small that is in terms of time. You will feel much better than if you spent the 30 minutes looking at social media.

Vadim Saraev, Forest Research, quoted in The Guardian

The research, funded by the Forestry Commission, is a first of its kind. Nobody has previously quantified the health and wellbeing benefits of the UK’s woodlands in this way. Forest Research used evidence of reduced depression and anxiety as a result of regular nature visits, as well as data on woodland visitor numbers, and prevalence of mental health conditions and the associated costs.

They adopted an ‘avoided costs’ approach, valuing woodland through calculating the annual savings in treatment costs associated with mental health issues. The avoided costs were based upon the average annual costs to society of living with depression or anxiety, including visits to GPs, drug prescriptions, inpatient care and social services.

The overall £185 million total is likely to be an underestimate because the researchers used conservative estimates of the costs of mental health issues. For example, they used the minimum living wage to calculate the value of lost work days. They also did not count the mental health benefits received by those who would not have developed a specific mental health condition were it not for the woodlands but who have nevertheless benefited from visiting woodlands.

Spending time outdoors — especially in woodlands or near water — can help with mental health problems such as anxiety and mild to moderate depression. This might be due to combining regular physical activity and social contact with being outside in nature. Being outside in natural light can also be helpful if you experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that affects people during particular seasons or times of year. Although many of us feel like hibernating in winter, getting outside in green spaces and making the most of the little daylight we get can really benefit both your physical and mental health.

Stephen Buckley, Head of information for mental health charity Mind, quoted here

Meanwhile, for those with access to BBC iPlayer, there are two series of the excellent programme Winter Walks to enjoy: “Walkers explore the north of England’s wintry countryside in this personal and sensory series. Along the way they meet local characters and talk candidly about life and landscapes.”

The writer, political strategist and campaigner Alastair Campbell is one of the walkers featured in series two. As someone who has waged a lifelong battle with depression and who campaigns to raise awareness of mental health issues, he talks openly and frankly about the benefits of outdoor walking.

We blog regularly about the mental health benefits for people of all ages of getting out and about and enjoying nature and the environment. For example, in our blog Getting involved with nature is a great way to deal with eco-anxiety, we highlighted the growing popularity of ‘green social prescribing’ — where individuals and, increasingly, health and community services use nature to boost mental wellbeing.

We argued that:

  • children and young people need to be learning about the environmental challenges we face
  • they should also be encouraged and empowered to take practical action to make a difference and bring about change
  • active engagement is a way to tackle mental health conditions like eco-anxiety that thrive on feelings of helplessness and disempowerment

In blogs like Immersing children in nature from a young age is a massive win-win we refer to the twin benefits — to education and to health — of putting nature at the very heart of children’s lives, regardless of whether they live in the middle of the countryside or the middle of a city.

Read More About Mental Health

Image at the head of this article by Hands off my tags! Michael Gaida from Pixabay.

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