RMIT: Nature as medicine

A new RMIT project is exploring the benefits of prescribing nature in Australia, Europe and Latin America to reduce loneliness and improve mental health.

Loneliness can have severe impacts on our health and is associated with various chronic diseases and poor mental well-being.

It’s an ongoing issue. In Europe for example, even before COVID-19, around 75 million adults reported meeting with family and friends only once a month, or even less.

Around 30 million European adults said they frequently felt lonely. In Australia, one in four people report feelings of loneliness.

While permeating society globally, loneliness is often not sufficiently addressed by traditional health care systems.

A new project led by urban ecology and social researchers in the RMIT School of Global, Urban and Social Studies (GUSS) will look at how prescribing nature can address mental well-being.

Known as nature-based social prescribing, this new approach aims to reduce loneliness by connecting people with social opportunities in safe, inclusive and accessible, outdoor urban spaces.

The project, Re-imagining Environments for Connection and Engagement: Testing Actions for Social Prescribing in Natural Spaces (RECTAS), has been awarded nearly $500,000 in funding from the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).

Leading the project is ICON Science program convenor Professor Sarah Bekessy from the Centre for Urban Research together with Associate Dean of Research & Innovation at GUSS, Professor Katherine Johnson.

Together, Professor Sarah Bekessy (left) and Professor Katherine Johnson (right) will investigate how nature-based social prescribing works around the world and how Australia can apply the practice. Together, Professor Sarah Bekessy (left) and Professor Katherine Johnson (right) will investigate how nature-based social prescribing works around the world and how Australia can apply the practice.
Bekessy says this project is starting at a critical time where the effects of mandatory confinement and social distancing policies during COVID-19 has increased loneliness globally.

“Pre COVID-19, we know one in four Australians reported feelings of loneliness and over 50% of the population felt they lack companionship,” she said.

“Post-lockdown, it’s likely those numbers will have increased significantly.

“The global response to COVID-19 shows how important social contacts are for all of us and how deeply they are intertwined with mental health.

“The stay-at-home mandate has also revealed the importance of being outdoors and how crucial it is to have access to local nature.”

Despite countries like the UK and Japan taking steps to incorporate social prescribing into practice, Bekessy said Australia was really behind on the idea and the benefits.

“In the UK they provide ‘green prescriptions’ where patients are told to get a certain dose of nature a day – for example spending 30 minutes in a park,” Bekessy said.

“In Japan, the practice of shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, where one consciously immerses themselves in the sights, sounds and smells of the forest, is a form of social prescribing which is now being recognised by western doctors.

“Yet in Australia the practice of social prescribing is rare.

“Through this project we are aiming to better understand the effects of green space and biodiversity on loneliness and mental well-being around the world to help create a framework for nature-based social prescribing in Australia.”

The global project will engage participants in Barcelona, Helsinki, Prague, Melbourne, Cuenca and Marseille to test the impact and value of social prescribing for Australia.

In Melbourne, the project will work with Many Coloured Sky NGO and involve refugees and asylum seekers from the LGBTQIA community.

Professor Katherine Johnson said the results of the project would provide a model for reducing loneliness, nurturing new friendships, and clinically improving health-related quality of life directly for people most at risk of the impact of loneliness.

“This project will generate an understanding of how cities are working at the nexus of nature-based solutions and mental wellbeing.

“By evaluating this knowledge, experience and practice, the project aims to reduce the need of health and social services among program participants by fostering connections and a sense of belonging.

“This should result in a decrease of medication costs by reducing prescriptions and use of antidepressants and other psychotropic drugs, and thereby reducing the economic burden on health systems.”

RECTAS is a five-year project working with universities, hospitals and health organisations across Australia, Europe and Latin America.

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