Students Staff

06 April 2011

Walk on the wild side to help mental health

Colchester Campus

People taking part in Discovery Quest project

Taking a walk on the wild side could be a key therapy in helping to tackle severe mental health issues, according to new research.

The value of green exercise to an individual’s health and mental wellbeing is now an established concept, with an ever-increasing evidence base.

But now, a new study carried out by the University in conjunction with Discovery Quest (part of the Julian Housing Support service) has shown the value of the natural environment and wilderness therapy in helping sufferers of severe mental ill-health.

Mental illness is a major health issue, with an estimated one in six of us suffering from a “significant” mental health problem at any one time. Considering that by 2020 it is predicted that depression will be the second most common cause of disability in the developed world, it is no surprise that there is a growing interest in different interventions for tackling mental ill-health.

There is much anecdotal evidence of various nature-based therapeutic interventions (known collectively as “green care”) being effective, but this is the first time research for this type of project in the UK has robustly backed up the claims.

The project involved scientists at Essex monitoring the outcomes of the Discovery Quest project – a unique Norfolk community-based project offering adults with severe mental health problems the opportunity to be involved in innovative and challenging walking and outdoor-based therapy.

The findings showed that after taking part in the six-month outdoor project, 88 per cent of participants saw an increase in self-esteem and 89 per cent saw a positive change in their mental wellbeing. These results have important consequences for the participants’ psychological health and social inclusion, as there is a strong relationship between low self-esteem, mood and depression, anxiety, loneliness and alienation. Good self-esteem, on the other hand, is a key indicator of emotional stability and wellbeing. Physically, 96 per cent of all participants saw a decrease in body mass index (BMI) with 52 per cent also showing a decrease in their waist-to-hip ratio as a result of taking part in the programme.

The majority of adults taking part in the project also experienced an increase in the way they related to nature, considered to be an important predictor of ecological behaviour and subjective well-being.

Rachel Hine, Assistant Director of the Interdisciplinary Centre for Environment and Society at the University, said: “The findings show statistically significant improvements in participant self-esteem, mental wellbeing and nature relatedness. In addition, the significant reductions in BMI, mean that participants are both mentally and physically fitter a a result of taking part in the programme.

“Our findings show that those responsible for providing health and social care for adults with mental ill health should consider the multiple health and wellbeing benefits of challenging green care initiatives, such as Discovery Quest, when funding mental health services.”

Paul Lefever, Project Manager of Discovery Quest, said the findings show that allowing people with severe mental health issues to spend quality time engaging in activities in wild, remote, open countryside has a beneficial and positive impact on their mental and physical wellbeing.

“Although wilderness experiences may not suit everyone with mental health problems,” stressed Mr Lefever, “it could, be argued, however, that wilderness experiences might be used more widely to promote mental wellbeing.”

One person taking part in the project commented: “Discovery Quest has done more for me than I could have imagined. It has released my spirit and I feel completely different.”


Note to editors
There are photos available of people taking part in the Discovery Quest project. For more information please contact the University of Essex Communications Office on 01206 872400 or e-mail

For more information about green exercise research at the University visit:

Discovery Quest is the health improvement and activities team at Julian Housing Support service. Julian Housing Support service is a voluntary sector organisation, working with the strengths of people with mental health difficulties, to help them lead an independent life of their choice in East Anglia. For more information about Discovery Quest call 01603 767718 or e-mail

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