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Exploring the transformative power of Scotland's rural landscapes on mental wellbeing

To support World Mental Health Day on 10 October 2019, we highlight doctoral student Rebecca Crowther’s work in exploring the transformative power of Scotland’s rural landscapes on mental wellbeing

Anyone who has been on a walk through scenic countryside will attest to its ability to revive the spirit – but while most experts agree the great outdoors can benefit mental wellbeing, very little research in the UK has looked at why this may be. As part of her PhD within the Scottish Doctoral Training Partnership, one of ten block doctoral grants to support postgraduate training funded by the AHRC, Rebecca Crowther studied groups of people who believed in the transformative powers of natural spaces.

Based in the Scottish Graduate School for Arts and Humanities, she conducted research to discover the motivations of these groups, how they experienced shared encounters and what they believed the benefits were. Rebecca worked with a variety of groups in Scotland – from a youth development charity to an initiative to provide respite to urban dwellers with mental, physical and social issues – all concerned with mental wellbeing and personal transformation. “Each group used different methods, practices and activities to aid wellbeing but all utilised rural space in some way or another. For some this was through natural crafts or mindfulness in nature, for others it was excursions, such as canoeing, walking, digging and planting,” explains Rebecca, who took part in the activities alongside the groups to get a better understanding of how each initiative affected the participants.

With ages from 18 to 70 and from all across the social, cultural, political and economic spectrum, the issues the participants faced ranged from problems leaving the house, socialising and holding down a job, to destructive thought patterns, anxiety, depression, PTSD and bipolar disorder. Rebecca examined how the initiatives were making a difference to many of those involved. “A lot of the participants talked about how time spent outdoors gave them the opportunity to think through issues they may have, and many reported perceived improvements in self-esteem,” she explains. The aim of the project – Journeys to the Ideal Self: Personal transformation through group encounters of rural landscape in Scotland – was to shed light on the effect of natural surroundings on mental health. Rebecca hopes it will allow organisations working in this area to adopt positive changes. “Due to their workloads, many of the practitioners involved rarely have the time to reflect on what they have done, so I hope my work will allow them to look at what works and what can be improved,” explains Rebecca.

The project also has the potential for wider reach – to healthcare professionals and beyond to social policy makers. “Many of the case studies in the Mental Health Initiative group said they had to encourage their GP to refer them, with some GPs unaware of this particular organisation, and some unaware of outdoor initiatives working with people within this remit at all,” says Rebecca. “My project shows the value of experiential accounts in understanding how these kinds of practices affect individuals – and I would hope it suggests how funding for groups doing this sort of work in Scotland’s natural spaces may be used in the future”.

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