Volunteers needed for mental health project at Nature Discovery Centre

Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust (BBOWT) is calling on volunteers to get involved in a project to help people in Berkshire who have mental health and wellbeing issues.

Engaging with Nature’ at the Nature Discovery Centre (NDC) in Thatcham is a two-year project run in conjunction with local community groups including Newbury charity Eight Bells for Mental Health.

The initiative - funded by the National Lottery Community Fund and the Tanner Trust – will enable 15 participants to take part in a 24-week programme of free nature therapy sessions at the NDC, supported by skilled staff and volunteers.

Participants will learn important nature conservation skills. Activities will include a seasonal conservation task such as brush clearance or habitat creation, and a nature-based learning task such as bird watching or wildlife identification. Craft and creative activities, including working with knots and den building are also available. Each week, participants will do campfire cooking.

Berkshire Healthcare Foundation Trust (BHFT) data shows 3.7%, or 4000 people aged 18-74 years old in West Berks, are in contact with secondary mental health services. Problems experienced by people with Mental Health issues are social exclusion, barriers to accessing health services, higher loneliness reporting, poorer physical health & increased mortality.

Engaging with Nature participants cooking around a fire

“The Nature Discovery Centre remains a key place where people can spend time outdoors and experience the restorative powers of nature with other members of the local community who understand what each other are going through,” says Community Wildlife Officer, Jone Ayres.

“The sessions bring people together, engaging them with the rest of the group and with the natural world around them.

“The participant-led sessions help people to feel more valued and encourage them to open up and make deeper connections. Having 24-week programmes will mean we can develop a really strong sense of community between participants.”

In 2017, BBOWT ran a twelve-week pilot project at the NDC with participants from Eight Bells for Mental Health. The results showed a significant positive impact on the participants’ mental wellbeing (measured by The Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scales), including increased feelings of connections to others, improving the feeling of ‘being useful’, and feeling part of a community. It greatly increased their connection to nature and encouraged them to spend more time outdoors.

People communicate better here, especially the members who are usually very quiet and tend to keep themselves to themselves. I wake up every Wednesday and think ‘great, it’s nature today’
Participant from 2017 pilot project

Testimonials from the pilot project show the significant benefits participants have received:

“Us all being together and outside has bonded the group in a way that being at Eight Bells and any other environment couldn’t do. It’s more relaxing and it’s more empowering.”

“It has been a unique opportunity to get to know my fellow members so much better and share experiences and problems as we sit around the camp fire.”

“At the Nature Project everyone seems to connect better, they talk to each other more than they do at our drop-in sessions. People communicate better here, especially the members who are usually very quiet and tend to keep themselves to themselves. I wake up every Wednesday and think ‘great it’s nature today’. The sessions take me away from reality and all the stresses and pressures of life.”

Eight Bells for Mental Health Coordinator, Kathryn Dundas said:

“I’ve seen benefits and improvements, literally on the day. A member will arrive in the car park and I’ve seen them arrive quite stressed, their mental health hasn’t been in a great place that morning. And I’ve seen them visibly relax, and enjoy themselves. The next thing you turn round and that quite stressed person is sitting, laughing, engaging with people around them. We see them the next day at the drop in centre and that positive mood continues.”

A new evaluation carried about by The University of Essex found that the mental wellbeing of more than two-thirds of Wildlife Trust volunteers improved after just 6 weeks. Those new to volunteering, or starting with poor levels of mental wellbeing, made the greatest improvements. Those already volunteering with their Wildlife Trust had higher levels of mental wellbeing to start with but continued to improve.

The first session will take place on October 25th.  Potential volunteers who are interested in leading the sessions are asked to contact the Nature Discovery Centre on 01635 874381 or NDC@bbowt.org.uk

Find out more about volunteering for 'Engaging with Nature'