Our natural world has an important part to play in preventing and treating ill health and we believe more people should have the opportunity to access these incredible natural environments where they live and work.
We believe wetlands have a unique role to play in supporting people’s physical and mental health. We’re working to better understand this complex relationship better and discover how we can maximise the benefits that wetlands give people.
The way we live is changing and today most of us live in urban environments. Our towns and cities are developing rapidly, often with very little thought for nature. According to the United Nations 68% of us will be living urban lives by 2050. Nature is being squeezed out by this rapid development.
The 'green space' that remains is often unequally distributed, with deprived areas less likely to have good access. This growing separation from nature also has implications for the way we care for the environment, as growing evidence suggests that a personal connection to nature positively contributes to behaviours that reduce our environmental impact.
In relation to health, the 'non-communicable' conditions - such as depression, anxiety, obesity, asthma and heart disease - are now our greatest concern. These are termed ‘non-communicable’ to differentiate from infectious diseases, such as measles or tuberculosis, which were more prevalent in the past. These non-communicable diseases now account for 89% of deaths in the UK.
Economically, these chronic diseases places a huge burden on our health and social care service. For example NHS England spent £11.9 billion on mental health services in 2017/18 alone. However, the growing evidence that our health is improved by exposure to nature has meant that investment in natural treatments - in combination with traditional healthcare - is gaining support from government and in the health sector as a possible response to this health challenge.
Beyond the basics of providing our food and water, nature provides many things that help us to live healthier lives. It creates biophysical changes to our environment (e.g. temperature regulation), it provides environments and scenes that require limited concentration and so helps us manage stress. Nature also encourages us to be physically active and socially engaged. Our affinity with water suggests that wetlands are especially important in the nature-health interaction. Through research we’re beginning to understand more about the special role of water and the ‘soft fascination’ of wetland settings. Consequently, there’s a need to understand the relationship between wellbeing and wetlands.
We also need to provide more opportunities for people to spend time in wetland environments to improve and maintain their health. The benefits of time in nature are now being recognised by health care professionals as a way to increase disease prevention and reduce the social burden of chronic disease. For example the NHS is championing the importance of healthy lifestyle choices and are looking to options like social prescribing to help patients improve their health and wellbeing. With nature exposure mental health can be improved through reduced stress, fatigue, anxiety and depression. Physical health can also be improved through a stronger immune system and increased physical activity leading to reduced obesity levels.
Yet it is not only people experiencing ill health that
can benefit from spending time in nature. Businesses and governments are
increasingly seeing the improvement of the natural environments in which we
live and work as a way to produce a more resilient and productive workforce.
Much of the scientific research so far has focused on the benefits of green spaces or coastal areas, with wetland habitats often being overlooked. WWT are working to fill this knowledge gap and understand the relationship between human health and wetlands, to demonstrate the benefits wetlands can offer.
Our wetland centres are specially designed to balance accessible, safe, up-close wildlife encounters and maximal wildlife biodiversity. They’re places to relax and engage with the wetland nature. We’re using these settings to evaluate the effects spending time in wetlands has on individual and societal health.
We’ve partnered with leading UK universities, community groups and mental health charities, and are exploring some of the mechanisms that might lead to health benefits derived from wetlands. For example, we've conducted pilot studies to test the application of new technologies in understanding how wetland experiences impact our brains and bodies.
Our research has a common goal - we want to learn more, so we can maximise the benefits of nature and enable key decision makers to recognise them too. By doing so, we hope to conserve wetlands for the benefit of wildlife and people.
We’re working with local health care providers to design specialised wetland ‘prescription’ programmes - a nature-based form of social prescribing. These six-week programmes have been designed to enable people to be active, take notice of wildlife and connect with people in wetland settings. The aim is to help people manage low level psychological and physical conditions.
We’ve trialled the programme with adults diagnosed with anxiety and/or depression and, on average, the participants experienced significant reductions in stress and anxiety, and their mental health assessment improved from ‘below average’ to ‘average’ by national norms. One participant said, “It’s given me a reason to get out of the house” and he now uses nature to manage his mental health. We are currently working on an exciting initiative to continue this programme on a large scale at more of our centres.
WWT believes that having wetland nature nearby has an important role to play in our future towns and cities. We want to put it back where we’ve lost it and create new and innovative urban wetlands that benefit wildlife and urban dwellers alike and in even more ways than just their health & wellbeing.