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.
Story: Chanel Koeleman