The bestselling author and award-winning journalist investigates how nature and exercise can boost mental wellbeing.
In 2016, Isabel Hardman’s mind, in her own words, ‘stopped working’ as she fell prey to severe depression and anxiety. She took time off on long-term sick leave and despite several relapses has returned to work with a much improved ability to cope. She has since become one of the UK’s most prominent public voices on mental health.
She credits her better health to her passion for exercise, nature and the great outdoors – from horse-riding and botany to cold-water swimming and running. In The Natural Health Service, she draws on her own personal experience, interviews with mental illness sufferers and psychologists, and the latest research to examine what role wildlife and exercise can play in helping anyone cope with mental illness. Straight-talking, thoroughly-researched, and compassionate, this important and often funny book will fascinate anyone touched by a mental health condition, whether themselves or through the experiences of a loved-one.
This book particularly resonated with me as I read it during a 9 day self-isolation. I was not allowed to leave the house (not even allowed to go in the garden). Over lockdown, I began walking in my local park every day for exercise and something to do.
Yet it became something I needed to do every day for my mental health. I came to depend on the wildlife, the trees, the lake, and the changing seasons. And that is what this book is all about.
Hardman talks about how being out in nature is like a daily medication for managing her mental illness. As such everything else that follows in this book to me felt instinctively true. Nature does make us feel better.
The paperback edition of The Natural Health Service has been edited to reflect on Covid-19 and the mental health challenges it has brought the UK, which differs from the original hardback edition. This book is even more relevant than ever in the wake of 2020.
It is multi-faceted. On the one hand, it is an extensive guide on how to utilise nature to improve our mental health and manage mental illness. On the other, it is the story of the author’s own battle with mental illness and how connecting with nature helped her survive and return to a job she loves. It’s also the stories of many other people who have turned to nature for mental health reasons, whether that’s therapists or patients themselves.
It’s an ode to the wonder of nature. Hardman writes about her hunts for elusive orchids, her dedication to seeing a kingfisher, her first encounter with a bittern. The little gems in nature that made her want to keep living. It is a joy to experience the joy she found in nature even as dark thoughts stalked her mind.
She says it how it is. Time in nature is not going to cure mental illness but it is an essential treatment alongside conventional treatment. She describes it as physio for the mind. Nature can make mental illness more bearable and more manageable.
Initially, as Hardman talks about horse-riding, gardening, having a personal trainer, her pets, wild swimming, this Natural Health Service feels like an exclusively middle-class concept.
But she is adamant about the importance of making the Natural Health Service accessible to everyone. She highlights that, despite perceptions, nature is free and is accessible to many. Most nature reserves and woodlands are free to visit. And many of these places are hidden in plain sight in our urban areas.
Hardman lays out the wide range of research indicating that nature helps mental health in a relevant and engaging way. The author tests out various initiatives such as forest bathing.
She also goes through research into the various methods of managing mental health and highlights how nature can support us in using those methods in a holistic way. For example, using nature for mindfulness and writing a nature-focused gratitude journal.
As a journalist, she does make efforts to be balanced in her presentation of research and anecdotes. Hardman accepts that perhaps much of it is down to the placebo effect. I suspect she does not believe this however based on her own experiences. But even if this is the case, she argues that is not a reason to discount it. Nature works even if we’re not always sure why.
The last chapters are a call to action. A manifesto for an urgently needed Natural Health Service to help us cope with a mental health crisis and to support our under -resourced National Health Service. She speaks out about the dangers our children are facing from ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’. The threats nature faces and the threat to ourselves is explored too.
I would highly recommend this book for anyone struggling with their own mental health, for friends and family of those with mental illness, for GPs, therapists, MPs and policy-makers. This book reaffirmed what I personally hold to be true about nature and also taught me so much more.
The Natural Health Service paperback edition is published on 7 January 2021. With thanks to Atlantic Books and NetGalley for an advance copy of the ebook in exchange for an honest review.
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