Mental Health and Nature - Kieran McKay

by Kieran McKay, Outdoors Programme Manager Recreation Aotearoa

Many years ago, I was sitting at the bottom of a huge Alerce tree in the mountains of Chile. An alerce is a very large south American conifer, kind of like the giant redwoods in California. A recent cave diving accident had created a darkness in my soul I couldn’t shake. Watching a mate die in front of you and then having to leave him on a ledge 85 metres underwater has that effect.

Even though I will forever hold in my mind that vision of him dying, my connections to the natural world has helped me to find light in the darkness and keep what Winston Churchill used to call the “black dog” at bay and it all started with that huge ancient tree. Deep in the old forest sitting amongst its roots and leaning against the rough bark I felt totally at peace. A peace that could not be replicated, as I found out a while later, by drugs doled out by a psychiatrist. His answer was that the drugs would help give me a break. They gave me night sweats and the wildest dreams ever, no peace through, not like sitting beneath that tree that started its life before Taupo erupted. This peace I didn’t understand, I just knew it was my time in the natural world that created it and I kept going back to that world time after time for another fix.

These days you can do a google search and find many studies that directly link the outdoors to positive wellbeing and to improvements in mental health. I am a convert 100 percent. We have been dragged out of the bush and told to build things to isolate us from the various natural cycles, the flora and the fauna that has sustained us for centuries before hand then told we have to survive in an increasingly mad world where nothing seems certain and where those very life cycles, we depended on are at risk… It’s no wonder our mental health system is being put under pressure.

The government promised 1.8 billion to be invested in our mental health sector. Even though I am sure there is a huge amount of good being done, the demand is still increasing, and the sector is struggling to keep up. There are many community programmes connecting people with family and Iwi. What I would love to see is those programmes also connecting people to their outdoor environment to take advantage of the brains natural yearning for time in the bush.

I found a research paper that proves the worth of just one hour in the bush. This time in the natural world helps the brain to relax. After the participants in the experiment were subjected to a high stress environment the researchers showed that the level of activity in that stress part of the brain decreased after a walk in the natural environment. Deep down, intrinsically I believe we all know it works and if we all know it works why then are we not using the natural environment more often as part of the treatment process for depression or other common mental illnesses?

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