An innovative wellbeing project at a local nature reserve has helped improve participants' mental health, results have revealed.
The Head to Nature project was a 12 week pilot project organised by RSPB Northern Ireland in partnership with Derriaghy Social and Educational Centre, part of the South Eastern Health Trust, and the Public Health Agency.
The project saw eight service users voluntarily attend Portmore Lough nature reserve near Aghalee to carry out nature-related activities like guided walks, wildlife photography and practical conservation work on the reserve.
The participants all suffered from mild mental health problems like depression and anxiety.
The World Health Organisation estimates that depression and depression-related illness will become the greatest source of ill health by 2020.
However in Northern Ireland there has been a lack of research looking at the mental health benefits of exposure to nature.
Participants in the Portmore Lough project were asked to fill out questionnaires at the beginning and end of the scheme and their answers were marked against the Warwick Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale.
The mean score in week one was 36.25 - classed as 'below average' wellbeing. But by week 12 the mean score had risen to 49.37 which is classed as 'average' wellbeing, showing that the Head to Nature scheme had a positive impact on the participants' wellbeing.
There was also an impressive 100% participant retention rate throughout the project. In comparison, only around one in eight people referred to gym programmes by their GP complete the course.
Last month a thank you event was held for the service users at RSPB NI's Belfast Window on Wildlife reserve and the group are planning to volunteer for the charity's corncrake project on Rathlin Island.
Going forward, RSPB NI hopes to build upon what was learned from this pilot and roll out similar projects in different parts of Northern Ireland.
Sean Woods, RSPB NI Futurescapes Project Officer, commented: "The Head to Nature project exceeded everyone's expectations and it's clear to see that the participants' wellbeing improved over the 12 weeks.
"Not many health interventions improve mood and clarity of thinking, have no known side effects and are free! The project demonstrated that nature can do all this.
"It has been a joy to work with the group. We look forward to building on this momentum and continuing to champion the benefits of nature for wellbeing."
Service user Paulette Mitchell added: "My time at Portmore Lough was an excellent way of communicating with other people, instilling a sense of belonging to nature and connection to each other. It also increased my physical, mental and social fitness and increased my confidence."
Portmore Lough is open seven days a week and admission is free. Find out more at www.rspb.org.uk/portmorelough.