My GP gave me a ‘nature prescription’ – it saved my life

Catherine Renton
·5 min read
Catherine Renton: ‘I had no idea I was about to develop an emotional and meaningful connection to this little plot of land’
Catherine Renton: ‘I had no idea I was about to develop an emotional and meaningful connection to this little plot of land’

In February 2020, I sat in my GP’s office and told him I wasn’t very attached to being alive. I’ve lived with clinical depression for almost 20 years and it’s a sentence I’d uttered before. When I see my doctor at my lowest ebb they ask if I have made plans to end my life and I often reply: “No. But most days I’m disappointed to wake up.”

I asked if the medication I’d been prescribed in differing doses following my mum’s death seven years ago had stopped working. Or was there something else I could do to lift the suffocating doom while I awaited NHS therapy? My GP frowned as he asked: “How often do you go outside?”

I was confused by the change of subject. “Well, I had to go outside to get here, does that count?”

He smiled, “Do you regularly spend time outdoors?”

I didn’t. I spent eight hours a day in an office with an almost two-hour commute. Outside was what I saw from a bus or office window. My GP explained that he was reluctant to change my medication, as he suspected my depression had been exacerbated by the winter months. He said: “Have you ever heard of a nature prescription?”

“That sounds like something you offer when you’ve run out of ideas,” I replied.

However, there is emerging evidence that social prescribing – primary care professionals referring people to a range of local, non-clinical services to support their health and wellbeing – can lead to a range of positive outcomes, such as improved quality of life and emotional wellbeing. And in July 2020, Environment Secretary George Eustice announced a £4 million investment for a cross-government project aimed at preventing and tackling mental ill health through green social prescribing.

My GP explained that studies had found positive links between nature and mental health, citing research in Denmark, that showed 10 weeks of gardening was as effective as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). The GP surgery was in consultation with the RSPB to pilot nature prescriptions and I was offered a leaflet with more information.

I was deeply cynical that looking at trees was going to ease my depression but figured I had nothing to lose. I made a commitment to spend as much time outdoors as possible and to follow the activities I'd been given. I felt idiotic as I looked at a list of tasks, which included reading poetry and opening the windows wide to listen to birdsong. I drew the line at imitating bird calls. I may write tweets but I don’t twitter.

Less than a month after my appointment the first national lockdown was announced, and I became so anxious I practically vibrated. I put the angst down to pandemic panic, but something nagged at me. I didn’t want to stay at home all day. I needed my jaunts in nature so was relieved to hear I would still be able to leave the house for exercise.

Living with my elderly father, our world became very small. Then one day, vegetable plants my dad had ordered for his allotment in pre-Covid times started arriving. But Dad was struggling with a back injury, and on the verge of giving up gardening altogether so I offered to help. I had no idea I was about to develop an emotional and meaningful connection to this little plot of land.

I’d visited the allotment before, but was never keen on mucking in. I have little patience and scream at the sight of a spider. I couldn’t deny the allotment was special though. Not just because it gave my dad a sense of purpose and community after Mum died, but because Mum’s ashes are scattered there.

We received word from the allotment society that visits to the plot were allowed if we adhered to social distancing and hand hygiene. A pair of insomniacs, we could often be found at the allotment before 8am. Instead of waking up with a groan, I bounced out of bed with a familiar ache after a day of digging, turning over soil and lugging compost around. On days it was too wet or windy to visit, I felt real disappointment.

In the summer, I started to rely on gardening more and more for escapism. I’d been devastated to find out that Covid delays to a gynaecology operation would result in a hysterectomy this year. I’d never been particularly maternal but on those difficult days cultivating plants brought out a nurturing side I rarely displayed. When squirrels destroyed a carefully plotted patch of plants, I found myself weeping in spite of myself.

With the Groundhog Day feeling of lockdown, the allotment brought a tangible seasonality. The cycle from seedling to harvest varied by species and I was in awe of the tenacious nature of plants who overcame frost, flood and strong winds to bear fruit. I thought about the very worst days I’d lived through and how I had survived them all. I was more resilient than I’d ever given myself credit for.

The harvest was modest but delicious and the kitchen became a pickling and preserving hub for the allotment treasure. Realising the harsh winter would stop our daily visits, I turned my attention to planting bulbs in containers at home and buying vegetable seeds. I’d come so far – having started 2020 unable to think of tomorrow, I was now planning months in advance.

When I visited the GP again last autumn, I was bursting with tales from the allotment. Pictures of misshapen potatoes and wonky carrots filled my camera roll. My face, normally pale, had a glow about it. My doctor didn’t even try to hide his smile.

I still take medication, although a smaller dose than last year. And as evangelical as I now am about the great outdoors, I don’t believe nature prescriptions should be used in isolation but as part of a larger care plan.

The world changed for everyone last year. The biggest change for me? I’m incredibly attached to being alive and I have a vegetable patch to thank for that.