The world is currently in the grip of a mental health crisis as never before witnessed, with the under 18’s at most risk from severe anxiety and depression. Since the pandemic began in March 2020, school closures, isolation and stress within the home environment has caused an unprecedented increase in young people seeking emergency care.

According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, more than 80,000 under 18’s were referred to the NHS mental health services in England between April and December 2020 than the same period in 2019. As mental health services are currently at breaking point, other avenues are being explored to help young people gain perspective and control over their emotions. Social prescribing is now seen as a gentle alternative to prescription drugs and is proving an excellent resource in preventing and calming young minds in turmoil.

Social Prescribing is a concept which seeks to treat the whole person, not just the symptoms. It is a non-clinical support system which aims to return us to social engagement and immersion in all aspects of nature while distracting our minds from the stresses of the 21st Century. Ecotherapy is an example of one such treatment which involves spending time doing exploratory activities in nature to improve mental health.

One aspect to Social Prescribing is the exploration of the five senses and re-introducing them to the world around us. Generally, young people are immersed in the sight and sound of computers and phones and the touch of the keyboard which in turn can lead to mindless eating and drinking. We are disconnected from all that is around us and this social disconnection leads to profound anxiety.

In 1984, Roger Ulrich PhD discovered that a view of nature from a hospital bed resulted in a shorter hospital stay and greatly reduced the need for pain medication. His findings influenced the design of healthcare architecture worldwide. A view of nature benefits us all and provides relief to the mind.

Our senses can be involved in so many ways:

Taste can be utilised by teaching children to concentrate on the food or liquid they are consuming and focusing on the taste and texture while considering the origin of the food and the nutritional benefits to their minds and bodies. This should be undertaken with no other activity to dilute the experience.

Touch can be very therapeutic as animal studies have shown. A young monkey will prefer the warmth and softness of a piece of cloth over food as the comfort derived from a soft blanket, for example, provides a sense of calm. The sensation of a weighted blanket on an anxious child can provide a feeling of safety. Stroking the skin or hair can reassure the brain that it is not under threat and helps to release the tension that underlies an overactive stress response.

Listening to sounds which soothe the mind, such as birdsong, the sea or a gentle waterfall are simple but effective methods of relaxation. There are many such videos on YouTube which provide all manner of pacifying sounds which can be played continuously in the background to provide the calm required for anxious children, played alongside images of nature. Birdsong such as the bucolic sound of chickens, the pillowy coo of wood pigeons or the song of the robin all have a great effect on mental fatigue, as does the sound of waves on a shore which provides its own hypnotic rhythm.

Watching pleasing shapes and moving patterns in a variety of colours can act as a sedative for the brain. Watching the repetitive motion of the sea or clouds or the wind in trees is a therapy which has proven benefits, as do images of nature such as clusters of pink blossom which are so popular in Japan for their calming and uplifting effects.

Smells such as the nostalgic scent of a loved one, freshly washed laundry, roses, lavender and freshly mown grass give reassurance to the brain of previous times and places where the mind felt safe. The link between smells and our emotional state is known to be very powerful.

Sensory bottles or ‘Calm Down Jars’ are available to buy online and are excellent to soothe and distract children who are showing signs of distress.

In these fast-paced, technologically driven times, we have lost patience for that which nurtures and supports us as human beings. In order to heal who we are now, we must return to who we were meant to be.

The most hopeful statement of all is:

‘Let’s have another go’

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