In all of our conversations about mental health the most wise advice is often overlooked. “Find what helps, appreciate what helps and keep reminding yourself of what helps.”
Life’s events can hurt and damage in irreparable ways. After them life is altered and is never the same again. And yet somehow, we can regain a sense of wellbeing, cope better, complete tasks, laugh, love and yes enjoy full moments and days. Even after devastating trauma.
On our low days depression, anxiety or low mood lie to us and tell us that is impossible. That nothing will change. But it is a lie. And some of the most simple things help to prove it is a lie. Yes, medical and professional help is sometimes required – and must be asked for and readily available – but the most simple things can keep us going between those times of emergency or urgency.
Trees help. Planting things help. Even planting in window boxes. Walking in the air helps, especially when the last thing you want to do is go outside. Outside helps. There is a whole physical reason why – endorphins are released and that helps mood, and if you need a logical reason to do something sure why not read up a bit on that, but the point is, walking helps.
And please don’t take my word for it. There are recent studies which have monitored brain activity and, yes, walking is definitely good. Walking in an environment with planting and trees is better. We obviously know this by instinct. But the science proves it. A study by University of Chicago psychologist Marc Berman in Toronto (no I don’t know why he went from Chicago to Toronto either) showed “that an additional ten trees on a given block corresponded to a one-per-cent increase in how healthy nearby residents felt. To get an equivalent increase with money, you’d have to give each household in that neighborhood ten thousand dollars—or make people seven years younger”.
And guess what? The same study showed that the poorer the area, in income and co-related health, typically there were less trees. In Belfast, architect Fearghal Murray responded to this study by pointing out that Belfast has a tree canopy coverage of 3.5%, Dublin has 7%, Stockholm has 57%, Helsinki 49%. He poses the challenge to city planners to plant more trees for our mental health. He has a point.
Old photographs of Belfast, and in particular the Falls Road, all show beautiful big trees in them. More people walked, and more people had trees to walk under. Our conflict saw them torn down and only partially replaced. Too many of our streets have only a couple of trees just filling up awkward cornersrather than being integral parts of the street scape.
Investment in pedestrian space, and providing a canopy of trees would obviously contribute to making the city carbon neutral, but would equally have a positive impact on the mental health of our citizens. In the midst of a conversation on the levels of mental ill health and the impact of conflict related trauma in Belfast we need to think far beyond medical answers. Investing in long term healthier environments where the every day actions of “doing things that help” are acknowledged and supported will be a significant part of the answer. The science proves it.