An NIHR PHR funded project in collaboration with Forestry Commission Scotland
The study’s aim is to provide robust and generalisable causal evidence for impact on mental health within deprived communities that receive an intervention designed to increase their contact with natural environments.
The project is designed to take advantage of a rare opportunity for a prospective study, where planned interventions to enhance urban populations’ access to natural environments provide a ‘natural experiment’ and mental health impacts of the interventions can be evaluated at a community level, over time.
Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS) has an £8m/yr programme - Woods In and Around Town (WIAT) - focused on improving health and quality of life in towns and cities. WIAT works with deprived communities to regenerate local woods and promote them as safe and accessible places for enjoying the outdoors. Such interventions may be followed by other providers in future, if shown to be effective. The WIAT programme aims to increase contact with local woodlands by community residents, contributing to improved mental health and wellbeing.
This proposal aims to assess the impact of this environmental intervention on community-level health, mental wellbeing in particular. The WIAT scheme represents a rare and valuable opportunity to carry out a prospective evaluation of the health impacts of change in, and promotion of, woodland environments for recreation. Selected sites, matched to intervention sites, will be used as controls.
Poor mental health is a major public health problem. For example, it is estimated that 27% of the EU adult population experienced poor mental health in the past year; that’s 83 million people. These problems are expensive too. In Scotland alone, where this project is based, they are thought to cost £10.7billion. Improving people’s mental health and wellbeing is therefore a priority. The problem is we are not sure how to do this when so many people are affected. The environments we live in might be able to help. Seeing and visiting natural environments, such as woodlands and parklands, can be good for health and wellbeing. Not only do these environments make you feel better, they can also benefit your body and mind in measurable ways. In particular, they can reduce stress. We know this from experiments which take people into woodlands or gardens. The results show that they feel better and that those effects last when they return to their normal lives. This is useful, but it’s not clear how much they match what happens in people’s everyday experience because the results are from scientific experiments, not real life. To find out whether better physical environments can help with this public health problem, we need to explore whether changing the environments in which people live has an impact on their health. In particular, we would like to find out if it can help poorer communities, who often face particularly high levels of stress and mental health problems.
Although there are many woods in and around deprived communities, they are often not easy for local people to enter and use, they lack facilities or information, and ways to enjoy the woods are not well promoted. The Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS) has a programme to work with local people to open these sites up, add better facilities and offer activities like walking groups to encourage use. Our study will evaluate the impacts on health of this programme. We are looking for answers to some specific questions that will tell us how well projects under the programme have worked: do local people become more aware of their nearby woodlands and start to use them more? Do people’s stress levels go down? Does this happen equally across the community, or do men benefit more than women, for example? We will use a standard way of measuring how stressed people are; it’s been used in other studies before and is good at picking up the effects of different environments on stress. We will also study what has most effect: is it physical change in the woodland environment itself or is it local people becoming involved in activities like organised walks afterwards? Finally, we will also work out whether any effects that the scheme has are good value for money.
The study will take place in central Scotland. The study will work with three deprived communities where local woods are changed, and three where they are not. This comparison between places that experience change in their woodlands and places that don’t will allow us to be more sure that any changes we see in the communities’ mental health is really due to the forestry scheme. Local residents will be surveyed three times as the FCS work progresses. All data collected are anonymous and will be held securely by the research team; no-one has to take part if they don’t want to. We will also carefully monitor what actually changes in the woodlands, and talk with local people to hear their views on the scheme and how is has affected them (or not).
Our team has considerable experience in this kind of work and has already piloted the research in a smaller study with similar communities. The FCS is paying for all changes to the woods and their promotion. We need funding to carry out the surveys, monitor what changes in the woods and the community, and share the results with those responsible for public health, land planning and management, as well as with the communities themselves. Our findings will give organisations and policy makers better information on how to plan future forestry and green space schemes for the health of local communities.