Green social prescribing is a mental health and wellbeing initiative which helps individuals connect to non-medical services and activities in the great outdoors — and last year, more people in the South Wales Valleys than ever took part.
Also known as ‘nature prescribing’, the concept has been explored by medical professionals for more than 20 years — but its true value is only now starting to be fully realised, with the South Wales Valleys leading the way for Wales. One of its Health Boards is now actively directing funds into local GP surgeries, to support referrals into nature-based projects.
According to the Welsh Government, Wales has seen a +150% rise in the number of people benefitting from social prescribing* — with more than 25,000 people taking part in initiatives at parks, community gardens and nature reserves across Wales in 2020/21.
In the South Wales Valleys, these initiatives are supported by Valleys Regional Park (VRP) — a partnership of Welsh organisations, including councils and charities, who work with nature to help the region thrive environmentally, socially and economically.
Hosted across VRP’s twelve Discovery Gateway sites, initiatives in the Valleys include everything from walking trails to outdoor exercise classes, bushcraft sessions and conservation activities — and it all started with a pilot project in Caerphilly.
The Caerphilly Nature on Prescription pilot saw organisations including Gwent Wildlife Trust use Discovery Gateways for nature prescribing activities such as species identification, wildflower planting, sensory bingo and Geocaching.
The trial supported individuals with learning difficulties and mental health issues as referred by local GPs, community connectors and psychological wellbeing practitioners.
Following the trial, Gwent Wildlife Trust took the initiative beyond the Valleys — supporting a group of individuals from North Monmouthshire Social Prescribing Group on a 6-mile hike in the Brecon Beacons — as part of a new ‘Wild Health Project’.
After this initial session, participants have returned to the Wild Health Project week-on-week — reporting significant improvements to their mental health and wellbeing.
Ian Thomas, Senior Officer for the Wild Health Project, said: “Our goal is to see 1 in 4 people making positive action for nature by 2040, and within this one group alone, I’m already watching individuals becoming motivated, socially integrated and finding a love for the great outdoors — which they never previously had. Some of the attendees have even purchased their own walking gear, expressing long-term commitment to spending time in nature.
“Research shows that for every £1 invested in green social prescribing, we could save the NHS £8 — and with the NHS on its knees, I believe nature prescribing to be the key to enhancing people’s mental health and wellbeing long before they’re referred to the NHS.”
Gwent Wildlife Trust also undertakes lots of ‘train-the-trainer’ activity to help meet the demand for nature prescribing services — which is expected to grow rapidly over the coming years as its benefits are more widely acknowledged.
Jules Davies, Recreation and Wellbeing Convenor for Valleys Regional Park, added: “The benefits of green social prescribing are endless: helping improve confidence, mood, self-esteem, and motivation — not to mention improving anxiety and depression in lots of cases.
“It’s also proven to benefit blood pressure reduction, diabetes, and heart conditions to name just a few physical health conditions — as well as boosting the immune system, helping prevent lots of health conditions even before they occur.
“In turn, this can significantly lower the amount of medication individuals need to take —sometimes removing the need for medication or GP referral at all — and we should be extremely proud that the Valleys is leading the way in this field, in Wales and the wider UK.”
What’s more, it’s not just healthcare professionals and community groups that can prescribe nature — individuals can refer themselves by proactively attending nature-based activities of their choice, suited to their own needs.
To find your nearest Discovery Gateway and explore the free, nature-based opportunities available near you, please visit: valleysregionalpark.wales/discovery-gateways/