The power of nature in tackling loneliness and social isolation among vulnerable groups

The power of nature in tackling loneliness and social isolation among vulnerable groups

Researchers in Europe, Australia and Latin America are combining social interactions with the colours, sounds and smells of the natural environment to improve mental health in at-risk communities.

RMIT researchers are discovering how hands-on encounters with nature can strengthen relationships and reduce feelings of isolation among vulnerable groups.  

Professor Katherine Johnson, Professor Sarah Bekessy, Dr Nerkez Opacin and Dr Nicholas Hill have partnered with Many Coloured Sky in Melbourne to pilot a series of nature-based activities with a group of asylum seekers and refugees from the LGBTIQA+ community.

The circumstances left behind and the difficult path to reach Australia have left individuals struggling with poor mental health, compounded by feelings of disconnectedness not uncommon among vulnerable populations.

The pilot study in Melbourne is one of six taking place as part of the Re-imagining Environments for Connection and Engagement: Testing Actions for Social Prescribing in Natural Spaces (RECETAS) project, which involves RMIT Europe

The European and Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) funded project focuses on nature-based social prescribing – activities which promote contact with nature to strengthen social structures and improve mental and physical health.

“Many of us have experienced first-hand the positive effect that nature can have on our emotional and physical wellbeing,” said Professor Sarah Bekessy from the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies.

“In this project we are looking at how immersion in the natural environment with people in a similar position can benefit and positively impact upon mental health and wellbeing of some of our most vulnerable communities.”

The researchers are finding out how this works in practice, accompanying the group and visiting nature spots in the Metropolitan Melbourne area – all of which are accessible by public transport – over several weeks.

“The study brings together people who have never met and differ in terms of religious and cultural backgrounds,” said Dr Nerkez Opacin from the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies.

“Before we go anywhere, we run a focus group to encourage the first social interactions – we also assess the participants’ baseline relationships with nature from which to measure the program’s impact on feelings of loneliness, connectedness and quality of life.”

RECETAS pilot study in Melbourne RECETAS pilot study in Melbourne

The researchers realised that many of the group had rarely connected with nature since leaving their country of origin and the study included unique wildlife encounters: watching birds in the Darebin Parklands and flying foxes in Yarra Bend Park.

“Not only are we seeing the group form a bond with nature – we’re also noticing how being in these environments is inspiring a closer connection to each other and helping to develop new relationships within this community,” Opacin said

For the researchers, this social aspect and the concept of creating a safe space is as important as observing the positive impact of nature on the participants, some of whom had to flee their home to start a new life.  

These experiences have taken their toll on mental health, and the facilitators from Many Coloured Sky were pivotal in helping to build confidence among the participants to take part in the study and start addressing the challenges they face.

“There are a lot of trauma-related issues with our population; it’s important that we act sensitively and acknowledge that personal stories and circumstances affect people in different ways,” Opacin said.

“Mental health issues such as depression can affect motivation and make it impossible sometimes even to get out of bed, to leave the house or do anything else but worry.”

“Over the course of the pilot study we’ve seen positive changes and individuals starting to share personal things with each other; in my role as both researcher and facilitator, I’m sensing that the group is growing both in connectivity and trust.”

The simplicity of the activities also allows space for self-reflection – be it through contemplation of the open sea or listening to birdsong – and is helping to reduce anxiety, with some participants reporting that ‘the calmness of nature’ makes their problems seem less troubling. 

Once the pilot is over, the researchers hope that the group feels empowered to continue taking advantage of nature in the city, together.

Project partners at the recent RECECTAS consortium meeting in Austria shared their experiences about the interventions taking place in all six pilot cities in preparation to commence the main studies in Barcelona, Marseille, Prague, Helsinki, Cuenca and Melbourne later this year.

The long-term goal is to see the nature-based social prescription model widely distributed in all levels of society to help anyone experiencing loneliness and other mental health issues. 

This article has been written for European Mental Health Week (22 to 28 May) which this year focuses on Mentally Healthy Communities and aims to increase understanding and learning about mental health in our communities, schools, workplaces and at home so that everyone can thrive and flourish at every stage of life.

In 2023 RMIT Europe is celebrating the significant milestone of its 10-year anniversary of operations in Barcelona. To learn about RMIT's history in Europe and keep up with the latest news and events, visit the #RMITEurope10 webpage and follow RMIT Europe on Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram

 

Story: Hannah Tribe

RECETAS has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement Number 945095. This article reflects only the author's view and the Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.

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Acknowledgement of Country

RMIT University acknowledges the people of the Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung language groups of the eastern Kulin Nation on whose unceded lands we conduct the business of the University. RMIT University respectfully acknowledges their Ancestors and Elders, past and present. RMIT also acknowledges the Traditional Custodians and their Ancestors of the lands and waters across Australia where we conduct our business - Artwork 'Luwaytini' by Mark Cleaver, Palawa.