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Mental Health Awareness Week 2021

Connect with nature

During the pandemic many of us have turned to exploring our local surroundings to get through the frustrations of staying at home. Going for walks has become even more popular and 45% of people working from home were likely to visit a park or green space. It seems that we have become more interested in nature, and the mental health benefits of this newfound interest are widely experienced. A Natural England survey revealed that around 9 out of 10 people agreed that natural spaces were good for mental health and wellbeing. While 41% of us claimed that visiting local green and natural spaces has been even more important to wellbeing.

To mark Mental Health Awareness Week 2021 and our fascination with the outdoors, we’re showcasing some of the people involved in our wellbeing programmes and how they have benefited from their own connection with nature.

Local firm encourages staff to explore nature during downtime

Howells Patent Glazing

Someone takes a moment to reflect along Mouseweet Brook

Someone takes a moment to reflect along Mouseweet Brook

"Debbie Willetts, from Howells Patent Glazing, said: ‘We’re based on an industrial estate behind Cradley Heath station. Not somewhere where you would expect to find much natural beauty but we are committed to supporting the wellbeing our staff. As a result, we encourage staff to take time out on their lunch break and explore nearby surroundings.
We have developed a couple of nature trails where they can go and switch off from the stresses of work and home life.”

One of the trails takes staff along Mousesweet Brook, close to Saltwell Nature Reserve, regarded as an original location for Dud Dudley’s pioneering iron ore smelting exploits of the 1600s. Today the area is popular for a variety of wildlife, including green woodpeckers and great spotted woodpeckers.

‘The area is really quiet and peaceful and with the birds and butterflies flying overhead and the gentle flow of the brook it has a serenity that allows you time to reflect. Just taking time away to think and clear your mind, away from any noise really helps. Also the location of the trail is great for giving you a change of scenery.”"

Howells Patent Glazing is a family-run business that manufactures rooflights and canopies for domestic and commercial clients.  The Black Country firm signed up to Thrive at Work in 2018, and over the years they have transformed the way they support the wellbeing of their employees. Through Thrive at Work they have developed an understanding of individual employee health needs and have devised wellbeing action plans to keep their staff healthy and motivated.

Gardening helped me cope with the aftermath of a major car accident

Garden Organic

Gardening helped Garden Organics employee, Rachel, to overcome a traumatic incident

Gardening helped Garden Organics employee, Rachel, to overcome a traumatic incident

Garden Organic is the national charity for organic growing. Through campaigning, advice, community work and research, it aims to get everyone growing organically.  The charity, based in Coventry, at Ryton Gardens, was established in 1958 and has 44 employees as well as around 400 volunteers.

In 2019 they signed up to Thrive at Work, to help build on the support they give to staff. So far they have achieved Bronze level accreditation on the Thrive at Work programme and are making progress towards Silver.  Although Thrive at Work provides a holistic approach to wellbeing, some staff members of the Garden Organic team have reflected on how their working environment provides them with a unique opportunity to connect with nature and manage certain mental health conditions. Rachel Philip-Street, from Garden Organic, explains:

"Gardening and nature helped me massively after I was a passenger in a serious car accident 7 years ago, when my eldest son was a baby. After being trapped upside down in a smoking car and sustaining various injuries, my solid foundations were completely rocked, and I found it hard to sleep and travel for a long time. I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) a year or so later. I had worked with young people for many years before that, and always been the professional giving advice, working closely with mental health professionals, so it was a big shift to go from service provider to service user.

My garden was my solace during this time, a reassuring constant as I worked to recreate a sense of security and order. A place of calm, and of certainty, where I knew life would flourish, the birds would sing and the seasons would change.

During this time I was setting up the Let’s Grow project, ironically a project focused upon assessing the benefits of volunteering on mental health, and running community workshops about gardening, foraging, and nature. Despite leading these sessions, I very much reaped the benefits of on a personal level. Gardening definitely helped my recovery, and my experience prompted me to train further to support other people to improve their mental health through access to nature."

Volunteering on a local allotment eased my anxieties

Alex's Story

Alex doing some gardening.

Alex doing some gardening.

"I have been working with Thrive into Work since November and my employment specialist contacted the Dorothy Parkes Centre to discuss the possibility of me volunteering with them. Initially, this was to gain work experience in gardening as I want to get a job in a similar field. I volunteer at their allotment twice a week and it has really helped me getting used to going out and meeting new people, and to understand a bit more about what it is like to work.

I have also been able to apply for more jobs as I feel a lot more driven to get into work. I think gardening has had this effect because I have been working outdoors and really enjoy what I’m doing. I have been able to socialize with the other volunteers and give them tips on gardening techniques."

Twenty-two year old, Alex from Handsworth, Birmingham, found an opportunity to get back into work through the Thrive into Work scheme. Thrive into Work helps people living with moderate mental or physical health conditions to find suitable and fulfilling work opportunities. Alex had been struggling to find work on his own and received support from employment specialists at Shaw Trust who were able to find him work experience at an allotment centre in Smethwick.

The exposure to new people and experiences from working with the team at the allotment centre boosted his confidence. As a result Alex is actively seeking new opportunities and growing his network of friends.

How cycling to work boosted my confidence

Lubna's story

Bangladesh-born Lubna, 21 recently moved to the UK to join her extended family in Smethwick. She found it difficult to settle because of her anxieties around speaking in English and meeting new people. She lacked confidence and felt lonely, but employment specialists at Shaw Trust helped Lubna to look for work through the Thrive into Work programme. 

She was able to find work at a warehouse, machine-processing and deep cleaning towels and sheets for local hotels and restaurants. Working at the warehouse helped her to develop skills, meet new people and regain confidence in herself.

Lubna enjoying a bike ride

Lubna enjoying a bike ride

"Back in Bangladesh I cycled a lot for fun and exercise. Occasionally I would borrow my dad’s bike and enjoyed it. I even used to cycle to and from work.  Cycling wasn’t socially acceptable for girls and women in Bangladesh, but I always liked the freedom and enjoyed the exercise.

I had wanted to cycle again and thought I could cycle to work instead of getting the train. So I borrowed my brother’s bike and use that to cycle to and from work.  It takes me about 30 minutes but it is great fun. Some of my colleagues at work have also been inspired to cycle too, which is why I now want to start a network to help other Muslim girls into cycling.  My confidence has improved so much since I started cycling through the park and around my neighbourhood as the open air is so enjoyable and refreshing."

Exploring fields near to home helps to clear my head

Emma's story

Gowling WLG is a leading law firm with offices across the world and more than 1,500 legal professionals. Emma Dennis, their lead on inclusivity, shares her love for walking and how exploring a wood near her home in Warwickshire makes her feel child-like. 

Gowling WLG are one of the principal supporters of This Is Me, our campaign to end the stigma around mental health at work. The campaign encourages employers to develop inclusive environments where workers can talk openly about their mental health conditions and can find support from their peers.

Where to get out and about in nature

With lockdown easing here are just a selection of the hidden beauty spots in our region where you can experience nature.

Owing to coronavirus restrictions each of these spots may be subject to alterations in how they are accessed. Plan your visit in advance and check before you travel.

Sandwell Valley Country Park, Hamstead, B43 5AG

Sandwell Valley is home to a number of parks, farmland and is ideal location for exploring woods, birdwatching, cycling or seeing farmyard animals.

Sots Nature Reserve, West Brom, B71 4DE

Sots Hole has over 5 hectares of some of the oldest woodland in Sandwell. The largely wet woodland supports a variety of tree species. A stream flows through the site and a small pool has recently been created.

Saltwell Local Nature Reserve, Brierley Hil, DY2 0AP

Saltwell local nature reserve is a mixture of world-class geology, bluebell covered Ancient Woodland and nationally important heritage situated near Cradley Heath

Wren’s Nest, Dudley, DY1 3SB

Wren's Nest National Nature Reserve is one of the most notable geological locations in the British Isles and visited and studied by geologists from all over the world.

Holly Wood Nature Reserve, B43 6AE

Holly Wood Nature Reserve is a lovely 5 hectares of mixed broadleaf woodland and wet meadow.

Smetstow Local Reserve, WV6 8NX

Smetstow Local Reserve is bursting with nature, more than 50 species of bird, wonderful walks along a canal and old railway track, and a fabulous Edwardian railway station café serving great teas and cake – all within in few miles of Wolverhampton city centre.

Plantsbrook Local Nature Reserve, Sutton Coldfield B76 1EJ

Plantsbrook Local Nature Reserve has a number of pools, surrounded by fringes of woodland, wetlands and a wildflower meadow, making it an oasis for wildlife. A large proportion of the 26-acre site is open water. The site lies on the Plantsbrook wildlife corridor, as does the nearby Hall Valley Country Park.

Pendeford Mill Nature Reserve, WV9 5ET

Among the woodland of Pendeford Mill Nature Reserve is an impressive Yew tree which experts have dated back to 2,000 years old. The tree is also home to a rare species of bat. Nearby are towering Oak trees – a little younger at around 400-years-old.   

A stunning pool with its own island, the fish-filled River Penk and the chance to spot rare birds, badgers, plants and marvellous mini-beasts make Pendeford Mill Nature Reserve a very, very special spot indeed.

Clowes Wood Nature Reserve, Solihull, B94 5JL

Clowes Wood was the first reserve owned by Warwickshire Wildlife Trust and has probably been wooded since the last ice age, though it was almost cleared of trees in the early 1900s. It is cut through by the Birmingham to Stratford railway and habitats found here today include heathland, woodland, and wet meadow.

Brandon Marsh Nature Reserve, Coventry CV3 3GW

Brandon Marsh is well known for the variety and quality of its pools, reedbeds, grassland and woodland. The large pools were created by gravel extraction and attract a huge variety of birds and other wildlife. 

You can use Google Maps to plan routes and journeys to any of the above locations.