“We planted a forest!” – The mental health benefits of ecological restoration: a pilot study

By Suzanne Hicks, Ecological Health Network, Gondwana Link. Suzanne Hicks is a clinical psychologist from Margaret River, Western Australia, with an interest in how nature influences our mental health. Here, she describes the evolution of an innovative pilot project involving disengaged young people in ecological restoration work with the intention of improving their mental health. The novel experimental design allowed her and her colleagues to test the hypothesis that there is a causal link between the observed improvements in social anxiety of the participants and the ecological restoration work undertaken by them.

An intriguing discussion in 2020 with James Aronson, of the global organisation Ecological Health Network (EHN), about the links between ecological restoration, soil health, and human health, whetted my curiosity to attend the second workshop in Hobart, Tasmania in February the following year. Although a clinical psychologist, rather than a scientist or ecologist, I have long been aware of the ways that being out and about in nature has a positive impact on mental wellbeing, both mine and that of my patients. But I wanted to learn more about the mechanisms by which this might occur, and also to be part of the growing movement involved in the regeneration of degraded landscapes and restoration of habitat.

In the days prior to the conference, we visited a site in the North East Bioregion of Tasmania where a group of unemployed people, brought together by Todd Dudley, president of the North East Bioregional Network, had undertaken ecological restoration at the site of a former pine plantation. Over 700 hectares of harvested, burned plantation land had been restored to the trajectory of a thriving native forest recovering from several cycles of clearing and pine plantations.

Landscape immediately following clearing of pine plantation in the North East Bioregion of Tasmania, Australia (left), and the same landscape four years after initiation of restoration of the endemic forest ecosystem.

The scale and success of the Tasmanian ecological restoration project was impressive, but equally intriguing from my point of view was the reported improvement in the physical and mental health of the participants. Accounts of changes from apathetic, disengaged and unhealthy unemployed people to enthusiastic and fit workers, some of whom went on to do further study in forest management and ecological restoration and regeneration, piqued my interest. However, what also stuck in my mind was a comment made by James Aronson. While applauding the success of the project, he also remarked that “It may as well not have happened”. Puzzled, I asked him why. His answer – because there was no empirical research data to support its outcomes. The intuitively obvious link between being involved ecological restoration and improvements in human health was purely anecdotal. I held that thought…

I felt somewhat out of my comfort zone at the start of the Hobart workshop, sitting among a high-powered group of public health researchers and environmental scientists from Australasia and the United States. While passionate about nature and very committed, through my work, to helping people improve their mental well-being, I certainly didn’t have deep scientific understanding of the nexus between the two. However, I was welcomed by the group and soon found myself intrigued and stimulated by what I was learning about ecological regeneration efforts being undertaken around Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand, and the ways that human health is impacted by natural environments and healthy biomes. The take-home message was clear: being in nature is good for people. In particular, the restoration of riverbanks may have the biggest bang for buck, improving water quality and the downstream health of the people who use the water. Yet, again and again, the need for empirical evidence was emphasized.

There is an abundance of data attesting to improvements in human health from being in nature, and also for the positive impacts on the environment of improving biodiversity. However, when it comes to support for the hypothesis that being actively involved in ecological regeneration, in and of itself, improves human health and wellbeing, EHN’s Adam Cross informed me there appears to be only a handful of published papers worldwide. Of these, almost all are correlational, and rely on subjective measures of well-being. There is, therefore, an urgent need for empirical data to guide ecological restoration endeavors, and further, in these times of escalating health budgets, to attract funding for ecological restoration as an important public health intervention.

On the plane back to my home in rural Margaret River, Western Australia, I mulled over what I had learned and wondered how I might bring it to bear in my community. My academic training as a clinical psychologist prompted me to speculate on the ways one might empirically research the hypothesized link between healing activities for impaired ecosystems and psychological health.

The Margaret River Program

I am a member of a recently-formed group of volunteers, who call ourselves Mindful Margaret River (MMR). We are working to improve the mental health and well-being of people in our town, which has had its fair share of recent natural disasters and tragedies: serious bushfires in 2011 and 2021 that burned numerous homes as well as large areas of national parks, and a multi-generational murder/suicide that took seven members of a single family. In addition, I belong to our local Nature Conservation group (NCMR). I wondered if, under the umbrella of MMR, I might develop a program, drawing on the resources of NCMR, whereby disengaged students from our local high school were invited to be part of a 20-week ecological restoration program aiming to improve both nature and the participants’ mental health. The novel part of the program would be to allocate students to one of two groups, the first involved in ecological restoration and the other to be in actively working in nature but not specifically participating in restoration activities. Researchers from the Psychology Department of University of Western Australia (UWA) would be invited to empirically evaluate the outcomes of the program.

In collaboration with my colleague Sandra Robertson, a community nurse at the local high school, a twenty-week program was developed taking students from school one day per week under the supervision of two teachers. The program would be assisted by NCMR staff in the practical aspects of restoration work. Volunteers from the Cape to Cape Walking Track  would guide the second group in maintenance of this long-distance coastal hiking track. The program would be under the formal custodianship of the local Indigenous Peoples, the Wandandi Peoples, who welcomed the students onto their Country (an Australian term referring to the ancestral Traditional lands of an Indigenous group) and accompanied them for a number of days throughout the program to teach them about Indigenous lore and culture, and about caring for Country. Additionally, a number of people working in environmental science and management such as rangers, scientists, and artists, were approached to talk to the students about nature-based career options, and on other occasions the students heard from experts in various components and aspects of local biodiversity.

Wandandi cultural custodian Zac Webb drawing a map of Country for the participants of the high school program.
Students of the program learning simple survey skills prior to beginning restoration work.

Over the course of 2020 we secured seed funding for the project from EHN Hub Gondwana Link, and subsequently full project funding from the Western Australian state-based grants body, Lotterywest, to operate the program for a further two years. Following this success, our pilot program was launched in 2021. Twenty-four year 10 and 11 students were selected, semi-randomly, for the two groups. There were 17 boys and seven girls, and four of the students were Indigenous. Their average age was sixteen. Sadly, due to behavioral issues, after 12 weeks the group involved in track maintenance was disbanded.

Students were excited to record different species of fungi during biological surveys.

The regeneration group completed the 20-week program and three questionnaire measures of their psychological wellbeing, taken at three points in the program, were obtained and analyzed by the UWA researchers. Taken together with focus group information, the researchers determined that there had been a statistically significant reduction in the students’ social anxiety over the course of the program, and that they had developed a greater sense of connection with nature and more appreciation of the actions they could take as individuals to help preserve their local environment.

The Boodja (“Country”) Regeneration crew, on Country during their 20-week program.
The Biddi (“Coastal path”) crew, on Country during the program.

After the challenges of the pilot stage, more work is now being undertaken to modify the research model of the program to fit more smoothly within the framework and timetabling of the school curriculum. However, even at this early stage we are pleased to be able to begin demonstrating empirically the benefits for mental health of being involved in ecological restoration activities. We hope that the next stage of the program will build our evidence base further, developing strong empirical support for the health benefits of engaging with nature and participating in ecological restoration—towards a vision where such activities might even become a central aspect of learning and education. In the meantime, it was a delight to have the enthusiastic endorsement of our young participants, captured in the comment from one of them – “We planted a forest!”