A new report by Forest Research aims to evaluate the benefits of trees and woods for mental health and wellbeing. It seems like a no-brainer, that people feel better about life in general when they have access to nature. But governments like to put numbers on such things, and this report for the first time tries to count the benefits in pounds, shillings and pence. Why? Because mental health issues cost us, as a society, many millions in treatment, days off work and in the social and economic costs of crime, including violence. Lesley Edwards, WftT’s very own clinical psychologist, will write more about the perspective of the mental health professional in a forthcoming blog. Meanwhile, here’s my brief summary of the report and its findings. As well as the above link to the report, there’s a short summary document that you can download directly here.
The researchers aimed to address four questions:
What impacts forests, woodlands and street trees have on the prevention and cure of mental illness;
What are the ‘avoided costs’ associated with nature-based woodland therapy, formal or informal?
What values can be assigned to trees and woods as natural capital assets (NCAs)?
What recommendations can be made for expanding provision of nature based woodland therapy and in supporting the creation and management of woods as therapeutic assets?
Here mental illness means stress, depression and anxiety, while the therapeutic value of woods and street trees is attributed to physical exercise, to the idea of forest ‘bathing’ – sensory immersion in nature; and general wellbeing, set against, for example, the prescription of anti-depressants among patients who had access, or did not, to trees and woods.
Skeptical as one might be of trying to put numbers on such assets, the report gives us its estimate of the avoided cost for those who spend time in woods or whose physical environment is rich in trees: something like £185 million every year. What effect this will have on government support for woodland management and creation is not yet clear. The new Woodland Creation Offer (EWCO in England) does not specifically score for wellbeing benefits; these are, in a sense, implicit. But if the economic value of woodlands is boosted in the public consciousness by such research, it can hardly be a bad thing – even if those of us who work in and with woods, and know their value, hardly need persuading.