Buzzed video launch - Mike King
Auckland City Council is releasing a video on the eve of MHAW. See what comedian Mike King has to say about his journey with mental...Learn more
Mental Health Awareness Week is endorsed by the World Federation for Mental Health and marked in over 150 countries. In New Zealand it is usually celebrated to coincide with World Mental Health Day on 10 October.
Find out how these inspiring Kiwis connect with nature to boost their wellbeing.
Horse-mad Jose Watson loves nothing more than going for a “hoon” on her horse along the beautiful, untouched beaches of her hometown.
Jose says getting out on her horse almost every day is essential to her wellbeing.
“For me it’s really important to feel good in myself. When something happens and I can’t go out I really miss it and start getting ants in my pants.”
She grazes her two horses Steiny and Whimmy in Hokitika on a paddock between a wild beach and a creek.
“It’s such an awesome natural area. As an adult it’s sometimes hard to get outside on a regular basis. Having horses makes you have to go outside every day because you have a living thing relying on you.”
The first thing she notices when she gets out in nature is the fresh air. “The air feels amazing and it reminds me to breathe.”
Jose always takes stock of her surroundings, noting any changes.
“I always go and check what’s happening in the environment, I can check what’s happening at the creek or see what the pukekos are doing and that’s really cool. Other times I go to the beach and warm my horse up down there.”
By focusing on the environment and observing the subtle changes in it, Jose’s mind is kept in the present moment.
This state is known as being mindful – the practice of giving your full attention to what is immediately happening within and around you. Mindfulness has been shown to help reduce stress and anxiety and to increase resilience and wellbeing.
Practising mindfulness is one of the ways the Mental Health Foundation says you can use to take care of your mental health and wellbeing.
“I might notice plants have got bigger, there’s been some erosion or something like that. If I want an experience to fill me up and to feel better, I need to go to natural places.”
Another bonus of riding every day is fitness for both Jose and her horses, but there is also a social element.
“Even though it’s not people you are connecting with you are connecting with another living thing.”
Jose, 38, who works for the Department of Conservation, got her first horse when she was 10 years old and can’t imagine a life without her horses and being in the natural environment.
“I’m just a person who likes spending time outside. I’m a pretty happy person and it helps me feel good. It’s very exhilarating and exciting to go to a beautiful place... On a horse you can be so free.
“It keeps me in a good space When you are in nature it makes you feel good and that’s a good enough reason to do it.”
There’s nothing like a good surf to get David Smale feeling restored and on top of the world.
And the sport certainly ticks off three of the Ways to Wellbeing that the Mental Health Foundation promotes to maintain mental wellness: taking notice, connecting and being active.
Exercising releases chemicals called endorphins, which are the brain’s “feel-good” chemicals. Endorphins are structurally similar to morphine, so also act as a natural painkiller.
“I have moments of exuberance and complete joy when surfing. I can have an amazing session and the thrill and enjoyment is unbeatable,” David says.
“When I luck in and the waves are pumping and I’m surfing well, I get a natural high off it.”
And that good feeling extends to after the surf has finished.
“The feeling after a good surf is epic. I have a cool after-vibe and all that endorphin stuff going on. It’s physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually satisfying.”
David, an English teacher at Westlake Boys’ High School in Auckland, has been surfing for 30 years. He started when he was 10 years old growing up in Taranaki, which is home to a number of world-class surf breaks.
Surfing keeps him connected to nature, which makes him feel good.
“Surfing has that natural connection that’s as authentically being back to nature as you can get,” he says.
“When you’re surfing, you’re in a dynamic, natural environment. You see incredible things like sunsets, sunrises, amazing light, wildlife like birds, fish and dolphins. It’s a real privilege.”
He has only positive associations with surfing. “Even though I broke my ankle badly surfing a few years ago, surfing has positive connotations. I don’t have any negative associations with it.”
It can be both a solitary and group pursuit. “I like the solitary aspect of it, being in the natural environment. It’s a retreat from your ordinary existence. But I also like the camaraderie. Going surfing with mates is fun.”
Surfing is a great way to stay fit too. “It’s the perfect type of fitness in that you don’t think about exercising when you’re doing it.”
The technical side of surfing keeps him fulfilled and is something he’s always honing. “It’s constantly interesting and challenging and something I never get bored working on.”
Surfing helps keep his mind in the moment. “I’m wholly focussed on the waves, paddling and getting into a rhythm and getting in sync with the ocean. It clears my mind.
“I associate it with getting away from things, whatever the hectic stuff in life is. It’s very relaxing and restorative.”
Like David, you can introduce any of the ways to wellbeing into your life, any time, and you will begin to feel the benefits.
Whakatōkia ngā rautaki māmā nei ki tō ao kia rongo ai koe i ngā painga.
Climbing trees, building huts, collecting tadpoles and running through the bush with friends is the stuff of childhoods from a bygone era.
These days our kids are more likely to play indoors, or maybe in playgrounds under the watchful eye of protective parents.
“Shutting our children away” has concerned childhood teacher Jan Beatson for many years.
“It really struck me that being outside is what our children in New Zealand didn’t have. They had lost their freedom.”
Nature Kindy – inspired from some Scandinavian preschools that are held almost entirely outside – was her solution to getting Kiwi kids back into nature to learn, grow, have fun and form healthy habits for a lifetime of wellbeing. Set up in 2010, Nature Kindy has spawned two more centres and five playgroups in Auckland. Jan says that the Te Whāriki curriculum is followed.
“It’s wonderful to see their absolute exhilaration of running really fast down a hill, or the joy of standing up on top of a look-out. They get huge enjoyment out there,” Jan says.
Research published by the Department of Conservation shows that if we connect with nature as children, we will turn to it later in life to find relief from stress.
“If you’ve connected with the mall or TV or food, then you’ll turn to those things when you feel down. But if outdoors is your place that’s where you will go and you will get those restorative benefits,” Jan says.
And though a Nature Kindy class might seem like one big playtime, the children are learning just as much as they would in a classroom.
“There’s nothing that you can’t do outside that you can do inside, but there’s plenty that you can’t do inside that you can do outside,” she says.
“If you’re inside you can’t kick a ball, you can’t run fast and you can’t throw things. But if you’re outside you can do art and music and stories.”
Numeracy, literacy and creativity come naturally in nature.
“The kids have got to find their own things to do, as we don’t take toys. So if want to build something, they have to go off and find their sticks and measure things for themselves.”
More importantly, the children learn crucial life skills outside, including problem-solving, managing fear, risks and challenges and developing resilience.
“We’ll talk them through things but they have to work it out for themselves – we want them to use their own judgement to manage fear and uncertainty. So if they want to climb a tree and get stuck, we won’t get them down. Then, they might practise and practise until they can go up higher.”
Children are also allowed to roam freely within generous boundaries to develop independence, discover their own limits and overcome adversity. And dealing with the elements provides great lessons in coping strategies.
“If it’s raining, we just put on raincoats and go out. In life, not everything goes right and sometimes you just have to keep trying until you do get it right.”
Of course safety is still paramount, Jan adds, but involves including the children in taking responsibility for it.
“We get them to talk about what they have to look out for, like, if it’s raining the track might be slippery, so they put their own strategy in place to manage that.”
Thomas and Mahrukh Stazyk know very well how connecting with nature can benefit a person’s wellbeing – so much so they decided to do something creative with the idea.
In 2003, the former accountants bought a 24ha farm in Araparera, an hour north of Auckland overlooking the Kaipara harbour.
Their original thoughts were to have a space where people from diverse backgrounds could come together to share ideas and learn from each other, so they named the property CUE Haven. The “CUE” stands for Cultivating Understanding and Enlightenment
Over the years, the couple was becoming increasingly concerned about the decimation of the natural environment due to increasing property development and, in 2007, decided to restore the property back to native forest.
“Auckland still has green spaces but with all the development, those spaces are disappearing. We don’t want Auckland to become like other big cities around the world,” says Mahrukh, who was born in India.
“Thomas and I have always spent time in nature, therefore it came naturally to us to create something like this.’’
They have enlisted the help of volunteers to transform the area. To date over 3,000 volunteers from school, community and corporate groups have planted more than 151,000 native trees and built almost 4km of walking tracks and boardwalks.
“We are so grateful for all the people who have volunteered their time,” says Thomas, who comes from the US.
The couple love seeing the joy planting trees and helping with the project brings to the volunteers, especially to those who haven’t spent much time in nature.
“It gives them confidence and a sense of creating something that will be around for a while, something bigger than them. It’s relaxing, educational and they get a real sense of achievement,” Thomas says.
The couple are in agreement that the benefits of being involved in CUE Haven align with the Mental Health Foundation’s Ways to Wellbeing – connect, give, take notice, keep learning and be active.
CUE Haven also allows people to plant memorial trees for loved ones who have passed away.
“It’s been so rewarding for us to see people gain a sense of closure after planting a tree. Nature has been very therapeutic for grieving people,” Mahrukh says.
“To us it’s a wonderful place to unwind and to just be, to be quiet, to listen, to talk. It invigorates you and enables you to recharge. We are hoping to create an experience like that for other people.”
The couple plans to covenant the restored property with the QEII Open Spaces Trust and eventually gift it to the community to enjoy in perpetuity.
“We hope CUE Haven will be a space for people to go to chill out. People need somewhere to go where it’s quiet and peaceful. Where they can hear the birds and be still and be in the moment.”
You may find bees buzzing, butterflies fluttering, native seedlings thriving and veges growing in rural settings or your garden but these beautiful spaces are also popping up among hundreds of Enviroschools schools around the country.
In this technology-filled age where kids can lose touch with nature, getting outside and involved in their surroundings is good for them on many levels, says Michelle Ducat, an Enviroschools facilitator in the Hutt Valley.
Enviroschools include early childhood learning centres and primary schools through to high schools. There are close to 1000 New Zealand schools participating in the programme with about 250,000 people involved.
“We talk about learning in the environment, learning about the environment and taking action for the environment,” Michelle says.
“We know there’s really positive things that can happen from the constant exposure and revisiting of natural places. Research shows that kids who have lots of regular opportunities to get out and revisit places in nature have positive impacts on their wellbeing.”
Many studies show the positive links between direct experiences in nature and children’s mental, emotional and physical health and wellbeing, as reported by the Department of Conservation’s document Benefits of connecting children with nature.
Kids getting out in nature can increase self-esteem and resilience against stress and adversity, as well as improve concentration, learning, creativity, cognitive development, cooperation, flexibility and self-awareness. It can also prevent childhood obesity.
Of course, it really helps that once encouraged, most kids just love getting physical and being outdoors, whether it’s in their school environment or on field trips.
“It’s meeting that natural urge to learn and explore,” Michelle says. “Some kids approach nature a bit slowly sometimes but their excitement overcomes a fear about insects or mud. Then, there’s an amazing sense of confidence and pride in what they’ve done.”
Growing, preparing and cooking veges, native tree planting, building bird sanctuaries and waste reduction projects are some of the Enviroschool activities the kids get involved in.
“Enviroschools are about supporting our tamariki to be sustainability leaders of the future and our schools and early childhood centres to be sustainable communities,” Michelle says.
Creating beautiful spaces and connecting to the earth teaches kids about teamwork and how to learn from each other.
“I recently worked with a school where the kids created a bee and butterfly garden. It’s such a delightful and beautiful place to be and they were so proud of what they’d added to the school.
“The feedback I get from parents is that the children are so excited to be part of this. It’s wonderful to see how happy it makes them.”
Turning her face to the sun and feeling the wind in her hair and sand between her toes is the therapy Debra Wallace gives herself most days – and also the remedy she recommends to those she counsels as a marriage and family therapist.
The beach and native bush on the beautiful island of Waiheke near Auckland is where she turns to process her emotions, reframe any negative thoughts, and also get the exercise her body needs.
Nature is also where her family spends time together to play and take time out.
Her love of nature as body and soul food began when Debra was 17, after her mother was diagnosed with severe depression. Looking after her mum was challenging and took its toll emotionally on Debra, who began to realise she herself was down a deep, black hole.
“From reading handouts on depression from my mother’s therapist, I realised that I too was suffering. This provided relief because I finally identified the problem and could learn new skills to solve it.”
After just a few counselling sessions, Debra quickly learned that actions speak louder than words and committed herself to making daily changes, such as running. Exercising outside lifted her mood and allowed her to take control of her life – outrunning the symptoms of depression.
“The landscapes have changed from running around a small pond as a teen to hikes with my kids now. Each excursion melts away stress and reminds me how sacred life is.”
Being active is one of the Mental Health Foundation’s Five Ways to Wellbeing. Introducing any of the five ways into your life, has been shown to improve mental wellbeing.
Knowing the value of self-care was essential in Debra’s training as a family therapist in her native America, and became critical after having a traumatic birth with her first child, miscarriages and stillbirth.
“Recovering from these was actually easier because I was aware of the symptoms and could rely on my healing rituals, skills and support network to process the negativity.”
The turning point in her recovery from post-natal depression and grief came when she again took refuge in nature and exercise.
“Biking, yoga, hiking and mindfulness were some of my main ways of processing. When I couldn’t go outside, I would visualise scenes from my favourite hikes.”
Mindfulness, the practice of being in the present moment, has also been shown to help decrease symptoms of anxiety and depression and increase wellbeing.
Debra’s experience of recovering and thriving from her experiences with depression has been invaluable in working with her clients, which include couples and families in emotional crisis, as well as young people dealing with low self-esteem, family conflict or problems in school.
“Connecting to nature has been the closest quick fix that I have found as it nourishes my wellbeing. The best part is that… it’s free. “
The silhouette of Mt Pureora rises majestically from Ngati Rereahu land in the central North Island. It overlooks the Pureora Forest Park, which straddles the Hauhungaroa and Rangitoto ranges between Lake Taupo and Te Kuiti.
According to Maori legend, the mountain is in the centre of the fish Maui, which represents the North Island. On its slopes, the 78,000ha Pureora Forest Park, with its native bush and birdlife, is surrounded by exotic forests and farmland, including the 5,500ha Maraeroa C Incorporation pine forest.
Mt Pureora is a sacred place to Ngati Rereahu, who have honoured the abundance of food and medicinal plants that have nourished its people and neighbouring tribes for centuries.
“It was our food cupboard, our kapata kai,” Glen Katu says.
Glen is Chief Executive of Pa Harakeke, an ecotourism and adventure company owned and operated by Maraeroa C Incorporation, a Ngati Rereahu land corporation.
These days about 9,000 visitors – trampers, cyclists, bird watchers and eco-cultural enthusiasts from New Zealand and around the world – visit the park every year, with about 2000 of them coming through the Pa Harakeke visitor centre.
Glen says they come because of the pristine bush, the bountiful bird life, the pure, clear air and to experience the rich Maori culture, heritage and hospitality.
“We love to bring people here and share this taonga. Everyone enjoys the moment and leaves with a sense of enrichment and happiness.”
Mountain bikers and trampers of every age choose to ride or walk the Timber Trail, which winds its way through the Pureroa National Park. The 85km trail was built three years ago and is being talked about as one of the “bucket list rides” by many people.
It’s a fun ride, Glen says, but aside from the physical challenges, there’s something about being in touch with nature that visitors love.
“People who come here say they just can’t get over the serenity and beauty of the forest – that and the birdlife. There’s kind of a soul feeling about being in a place where you can still enjoy wildlife – you may even get to see a wild pig or wild deer on your journey.”
A deep love and nurturing of the land is elemental within Maori culture, as taught by the ancestor Rereahu, and handed down to the current generation of Ngati Rereahu.
“Rereahu was a peaceful person and had an immense knowledge about plants and animals, which fed and nurtured our people,” Glen says.
“He was all about sustainability and caring for the land. The Maori proverb which encapsulates this is, ‘Toitu te whenua, Toitu te Iwi’, which translates as ‘Care for the land and the people will be cared for’.”
Those who come to Pa Harakeke also have the opportunity to get involved in preserving the beauty of the natural environment by planting a tree.
“They can choose a native plant from our nursery and plant it out on the estate.”
When people return, they can track the growth of the tree they planted by locating it via GPS, and then zooming in on it through Google Earth.
Using a wheelchair hasn’t stopped Merle Bradley going snorkelling or getting out into the rugged West Coast bush.
The 60-year-old nature-lover was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 2014 but that hasn’t stopped her going into nature and doing what she loves.
“I’m still doing something I love. I thought my mental health would go downhill after my diagnosis, but it hasn’t because I can get out and about,” she says.
People with chronic physical conditions generally do experience a higher prevalence of mental disorders compared with people without physical conditions. So Merle is thankful she can counter that with her outdoor activities.
Central to her ability to get out in nature is her specially designed all-terrain wheelchair.
“I was so excited when I got it because I knew it would revolutionise my life. It meant I could get out and about every week and be able to go out into rough terrain.”
The wheelchair, designed by Greytown engineer Peter Thompson, allows Merle to tackle just about any terrain, including the Abel Tasman Coast Track.
Earlier this year, Merle traversed the track for two days as part of a trial by the Department of Conservation to make tracks more accessible for the disabled. She completed two days of the track, with help from family and friends, who used harnesses and ropes to assist her through the more difficult parts.
Merle, who lives in Hokitika but is originally from South Africa, says it’s important when you are disabled not to be cooped up in a room or institution watching TV.
“Just to be outside listening to the birds, having a sense of achievement and the fun of tramping is an incredible feeling. I’m still doing something I love. My life can continue, I can still see the trees and watch the birds.”
After her diagnosis, Merle was told she had between two and 10 years to live. So the former primary school teacher and her husband embarked on a six-month holiday around the world.
“I wanted to go travelling while I could still walk, before I knew I would be confined to a wheelchair.”
After she returned, she got her all-terrain wheelchair and has never looked back.
While on holiday in Rarotonga this year, Merle was able to get onto the beach thanks to her special wheelchair.
“I put on bigger tyres so I could get over the beach. I could go up to the water’s edge, then stand up with the help of my husband and then go snorkelling. To get out into nature like that was so exciting.”
She is keen to spread the word to other people with disabilities about the benefits of all-terrain wheelchairs to the disabled.
“Before I got my all-terrain wheelchair I thought I would never be able to do things like going to the beach, but I actually can.’’
Rolling down a hill with glee – just because it’s there – is something you might expect from a small child.
So when Estella Lee saw a fellow adult from China doing just that when she took them to Auckland’s Michael Joseph Savage Memorial, she laughed and laughed with delight.
“Chinese people are in the mindset that their mood is very much related to their environment,” says the former travel guide.
“So when they come to New Zealand and see a big piece of lawn, they will be very, very, very happy, just like little kids!”
There’s mounting evidence that connecting with nature has a positive impact on a person’s mental health, according to Dr Mardie Townsend, honorary professor at the School of Health and Social Development, Deakin University.
Dr Townsend tells Psychiatry Advisor that “[Connecting with nature] is associated with reduced levels of stress, which also has huge ramifications for physical health, reduced levels of depression and anxiety, increased resilience, increased engagement with learning for children and adolescents otherwise disengaged from the education system, improved self-esteem and increased capacity to engage socially.”
These days, Estella is the chair and operator of the Chinese Conservation Education Trust (CCET), a charity she co-founded with the Department of Conservation in 2002.
The trust takes Chinese people living in the Auckland area out into nature to foster a love and understanding of New Zealand’s beautiful spaces, plants and animals.
One of the reasons the trust was set up was to educate Chinese people immigrating to New Zealand that they couldn’t bring fresh produce or plant medicines into the country with them. That idea extended into nature tours to explain the effects of pollution on flora and fauna and air and water.
Estella’s passion has been invaluable in her delivering the message of protecting the environment.
“I know how to deliver the message to people because I have the love of nature myself. So I can deliver my feelings to that, and tell Chinese people why we have to protect nature, and why is it so valuable.”
Some trips have included taking people out to the bush to learn about the natural environment, and visiting beaches at low tide to look at marine animals, Estella says.
“Each ecology system is different and New Zealand is a very unique place. It’s got a lot of different plants and animals and we need to protect them because once they’re gone, they’re gone.”
The tours are very popular, with everyone attending wanting to come back again and again.
Although the CCET is no longer funded by DOC, Estella is determined to keep it running on donations and grants because of the vast benefits she sees in Chinese people connecting to nature, and enhancing their wellbeing.
“I still want to sustain this trust because it is important as a bridge between the mainstream and the Chinese, and it’s also important to the wider world because those Chinese who have learnt will take their knowledge back to their place of origin.”
Gardening has always been viewed as nature’s therapy: Getting your hands dirty often seems to melt your worries away, leaving you feeling invigorated and satisfied.
Social and therapeutic horticulture (STH) is a method used by occupational therapists and other health professionals to harness nature’s healing properties.
Research shows that STH promotes social acceptance and wellbeing for people with mental health, social and physical problems.
That’s why Whanganui District Health Board (WDHB) regional mental health unit, Stanford House, has introduced STH for its residents. They can often be found tending their fruit and vegetables in the unit’s garden.
WDHB mental health support worker Richard Hemingway says most of the residents (many of whom will spend their lives at the facility), get involved in planting, weeding, pruning, harvesting and cooking the produce they’ve grown.
In the secure part of the unit, a beautiful rose garden flourishes, bringing a bright spot of beauty to their environment. Richard says the idea of extending STH at Stanford House came to him about five years ago.
Mulling over the future of the garden there, he thought STH could play an important role for the garden and the residents. With the support of all staff, he began using gardening as a therapy for residents.
Happiness and wellbeing are just a couple of the benefits Richard sees in the residents he gardens with. Movement, exercise, planning and safety skills are additional benefits they gain, he says.
“Gardening increases their confidence. For some residents, the one-on-one time we have reignites memories of spending time with their parents or grandparents.”
“I have a client who says to me: ‘Richard, it’s time to mow the lawns… so he gets the lawnmower out and starts mowing’.”
A greenhouse is being built at Stanford House to help the residents increase the number and type of seedlings they plant.
“We have three Pasifika clients who are trying to grow taro,” says Richard. “We’ll know hopefully in a couple of months if it’s been successful.
“Growing enough fruit and vegetables to be self-sufficient is our goal, as is increasing patient wellbeing. It’s all part of the humanitarian and respect-driven culture of Stanford House.
“We’ve had people from Capital Coast and Northland DHBs come to see what we’re all about. I know it sounds like we’re blowing our own trumpet, but there is something different about the way we work with our Stanford House residents.”
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