Mental Health Awareness Week: 10- 16th May
“Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.”
A little optimistic, perhaps, to those of us returning from a country walk freezing cold, dripping wet from the unexpected storm and longing for a hot mug of tea! Same weather, same experience, but viewed very differently. Nature as the nurturing, benign, therapeutic pits itself against nature as raw elemental forces as destructive as creative. Full of contradictions, ever changing yet changeless, the predictability and flow of the seasons, yet the unexpected and the dramatic. The source of so much tragedy and distress yet at the centre of our wonderful experiences of dancing light, fresh clean air, wondrous sunshine and stunning sunsets.
Enough of the poets and the philosophers. Mental Health Awareness Week falls this month with the theme of nature, and reminds us very clearly of the contradictions, vagaries, various life events we all have and our sharply different perceptions of the same experience.
Mental health/mental wellness, is subjective shaped by nurture as well as nature and impacting on us in so many different ways.
At last we have begun to acknowledge just how much mental health issues are a part of our lives, with around one in four people experiencing at least one significant mental health issue in any given year we can no longer consign it to the back of our minds. It is present in all our lives, accentuated perhaps by the peculiar and particular experience of the last year.
According to research  people have used a wide range of strategies to cope with the stress and uncertainty of the pandemic and these most often included going for a walk, spending time in green spaces and staying connected with others. Some of us have indeed during the last year rediscovered the natural world and the joys of nature. With more time on our hands, quieter roads, endless walks around half-forgotten footpaths, we have noticed the flowers in the hedgerow, the vibrant sound of the birds, the changing of the seasons. It has brought us, we say, closer to nature, more appreciative and for many more, at peace with ourselves and with the world, exhilarated and refreshed. It’s also Living Streets’ National Walking Month in May, with many ideas to be found on their website to help people stay active and connected 
For others, it has been a battle. A tough time where we have felt isolated and vulnerable. We have languished through long uncertain days, losing energy and spirit, frightened of the unknown and devastated by events which have been far too close to home. Going for a brisk walk and hearing the birds chirp away has done little to alleviate those feelings or bring us closer to nature in a helpful way.
This brings us to a sharp reminder on how life’s events in our natural world are experienced so differently and impact in so many different ways and how our mental health may be positively or adversely affected by that experience. Our understanding of mental wellbeing has improved but we still tend to want everyone to see the world as we see it, to get back to a normal that may never have existed, or to simply breeze our way through difficulties with resilience and unconquerable resolve. It simply is not like that for everyone, and we must acknowledge the individualised responses we make to the common experience.
The World Health Organisation defines mental health as ‘a state of well-being in which the individual realises his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community’. This is not a “social” definition, its an individualised one recognising the uniqueness of our lives, of nature itself. With this in mind we cannot see the “remedy” for mental illness as being the same for everyone, nor can we prescribe the same simple mantra of helpful tips to secure our long-term mental wellbeing.
We have to find our own way, somehow, and part of that is being able to talk about how we experience our world. Yes, we may learn from the experiences of others, perhaps even feel inspired by them, but most of all we need time to process our thoughts and feelings in our own way and in our own space and in our time.
Can “nature” help us to do this? Certainly – for some of us. If it works for you then great. Learn from the lockdown experience that going for a walk, being more attuned to your natural surroundings, getting into the flow or rhythm of the seasons can truly help. Some have stepped away from manic activity and hectic schedules to find life richer and fuller through simple and “natural” pleasures. Use the experience, therefore, to shape your future and to accept that the dramatic events have given you the opportunity to re-evaluate your life and get back in touch with nature which is positive and giving. Savour the moments you have now regained and feel restored.
But spare more than a moment, particularly during Mental Health week, for those whose experiences have left them feeling bereft or exhausted. Stop absolutely still, look the person in the eye, and say simply and clearly “tell me in your own words and in your own time, what it’s been like for you?”. For many this will give the opportunity to talk to someone who really does want to listen. This is the start for them of a long recovery route with all its twists and turns. But even this may be too much for others so perhaps simply make them a cup of tea and sit quietly alongside them. Nothing more, nothing less. Don’t force the pace, recognise instead that some will need to cry out from the depths, and they have yet to find their voice or be heard in the noise of our busy lives. Just being there will make a difference. Nature does not rush – her secret is patience.
Thankfully, many of us will move on with our lives quickly and fully but we must be there for those who will continue to struggle and to see the natural world through their eyes, not ours.