A trailblazing approach to mental health by Forestry Commission Scotland and local health boards is seeing service users go on activity-filled woodland walks

The Scottish are keen woodland-goers, with 78% visiting woods for recreation compared with 56% across the UK, according to the Public Opinion of Forestry survey. Now, walks are being used by Scottish health services as an aid for those with mental health conditions.

Since 2007, Forestry Commission Scotland has been putting the calming effect of woodlands to good use in courses for groups of adults with long-term mental health conditions. Branching Out consists of 12 three-hour sessions of conservation work, art creation and bushcraft, followed by a graduation ceremony. Healthcare professionals accompany their patients and take part, with specially trained woodland experts acting as leaders.

Participating healthcare professionals include occupational therapists and community psychiatric nurses. They come primarily as supporters rather than carers. “It’s de-medicalised. Everyone dresses the same,” says Kevin Lafferty, the commission’s access, health and recreation adviser, who adds that it can change relationships significantly.

“It allows both the healthcare worker and the patient to be more open so they can speak more freely to one another. Being in a woodland itself creates a positive environment for recovery and healing.”

The commission has trained more than 70 course leaders who have prior experience in outdoor skills. Often these are countryside rangers from councils or voluntary organisations, who go on a three-day training programme and a two-day mental health first aid course. In case of disruption, they are able to call on the healthcare professionals the patients know for assistance. However, those who would be unable to take part in group activities due to their mental ill health or who have blood pressure or heart problems are generally deemed unfit for courses.

The first courses were run by the commission with NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, Glasgow city council and other local organisations at Cathkins Braes Country Park on the south-east edge of Glasgow. The operation now runs more than 200 courses.

“The focus was to look at the mental health benefits of woodlands and green space for mental health patients,” says Hugh McNish, social programme manager for the commission.

As well as being Scotland’s largest city, Glasgow has other advantages as a course location. “Glasgow is well served with access to green space, but people don’t always know where it is,” says McNish. “We have access to good quality woodland within half an hour.”

Nine of Scotland’s 14 health boards now use Branching Out, with NHS Grampian planning to join. The courses are open to patients with conditions including psychosis, schizophrenia, anxiety and mild depression, and accepts those living in the community and in mental health hospitals.