Programme of 'river remedies' led to increased wellbeing among vulnerable adults and teenagers.
Nature-based sustainable prescribing could result in savings for the NHS and improved water quality for all, a new study has found.
The project was delivered by environmental consultancy Eunomia Research & Consulting Ltd, with support from South Gloucestershire Council and Bristol Avon Rivers Trust, and funded by the Environment Agency.
Eunomia was commissioned by the Environment Agency to develop an evaluation framework for collecting primary research results to see if they could find evidence of the value of nature-based prescribing – whether in benefits to health, or raised awareness of pollution in the natural environment.
To deliver the framework, Eunomia identified and facilitated relationships with relevant stakeholders including South Gloucestershire Council, Bristol Avon Catchment Partnership, and Bristol Avon Rivers Trust.
Working closely with these organisations, the consultancy put together a six-week programme called River Remedies: Improving Wellbeing through Nature which offered vulnerable adults and teenagers the chance to engage with nature at sites on the Bristol Frome River.
Project partner Bristol Avon Rivers Trust co-ordinated river access and risk assessments whilst the public health team from South Gloucestershire Council sourced participants likely to benefit from taking part.
Participants were invited to sessions made up of a variety of activities including looking at river samples, testing for phosphates and nitrates, litter picking and yellow fish campaigning.
Wellbeing scores and pollution awareness levels were recorded before and after the sessions. Although it’s unlikely researchers will be able to estimate NHS savings until South Gloucestershire has tracked whether GP and secondary medical visits decline over time, or if there is a reduction of medication used.
The accompanying project report shows the small sample size indicated positive wellbeing following activities, and a potential crisis was averted thanks to early intervention with a participating individual. An increased awareness of pollution to the natural environment was also recorded.
David Baxter, head of natural economy at Eunomia and project director, said: “I believe projects on rivers should be part of a portfolio of social prescriptions available for everyone, particularly those who are dealing with issues of depression, anxiety or isolation.
"They are suitable for all ages but, as mental health is a growing problem for young people, it is worth noting that they are a particularly accessible and relevant therapy for teenagers.
“Rivers Trusts exist in every part of England. I would encourage them to consider the learning we developed in this programme to develop their own offering.
"There is no need to feel daunted by questions around health and safety or risk assessments, if you find the right partners amongst public health professionals they’ll look after these things for you.”
Damian Crilly, manager of strategic catchment partnerships at the Environment Agency, added: “The 25 Year Environment Plan promotes the use of the natural environment as a resource for good health and wellbeing, including through nature based social prescribing.
"Our overall aim for the project was to contribute to the evidence base on the benefits of nature based social prescribing and to show the practicalities that could be followed by catchment partnerships.
"This study has provided valuable, practical insight into the delivery of a social prescription on connecting people with nature.
"It found that river based remedies, a kind of nature based social prescription, has a positive effect in terms of increased engagement with the river, it helped manage mental health risks and improved wellbeing.”