The mental health benefits gleaned from spending time in the UK’s woodlands saves the NHS and employers around £185m every year, new research suggests.
The report found that woodlands save £141m in mental health care costs in England, £26m in Scotland, £13m in Wales and £6m in Northern Ireland.
The research, conducted by government-funded company Forest Research, marks the first attempt to quantify the UK’s woodlands’ benefits to the public’s mental health and wellbeing.
The saved costs were measured based on those associated with treatment, such as visiting GPs, drug prescriptions, inpatient care and social services, as well as employment-related costs based on the number of working days lost due to poor mental health.
The cost of treating a patient with depression amounts to an estimated £1,640 in 2020, and £705 to treat someone with anxiety.
Increased physical exercise is likely one of the main drivers to boost a person’s wellbeing, but other factors that are more difficult to measure are also likely to be at play, said the authors.
They cited a practice called “forest bathing”, which relates to “mindfulness in woodlands, often during walks”, that points towards the restorative benefits of being in a natural environment.
The study used 2016 research from Australia that found weekly visits to outdoor green spaces of at least 30 minutes can reduce the prevalence of depression by seven per cent as a starting point.
It was compared to data gathered by the Public Opinion of Forestry Survey, which has been conducted by Forest Research every two years since 1995.
In 2019, 37 per cent of respondents in England and Northern Ireland visited woodlands at least several times a month. In Wales, this figure increased to an estimated 44 per cent, and is even higher (51 per cent) among people in Scotland.
NHS data shows that around 3.3 per cent of UK adults have a diagnosis of depression, while 5.9 per cent suffer from anxiety and 7.8 per cent have a common, unspecified mental health disorder.
The report also considered the value of trees in streets, and found they could save the NHS a potential £16m in treating poor mental health each year.
It predicted that over the next 100 years, the mental health benefit of visiting woodlands will save £11bn, and street trees could save a further £1bn.
Nearly half the UK population say they are now spending more time outside compared to before the pandemic, the report found, with a majority saying they felt happier when in woodlands and nature.
Stephen Buckley, head of information for mental health charity, Mind, said: “Spending time outdoors – especially in woodlands or near water – can help with mental health problems such as anxiety and mild to moderate depression.
“Although many of us feel like hibernating in winter, getting outside in green spaces and making the most of the little daylight we get can really benefit both your physical and mental health.”
Sir William Worsley, chairman of the Forestry Commission, added: “This report demonstrates just how vital it is to invest in healthy trees and woodlands.
“It makes medical sense, because it will mean better health for all; economic sense, by saving society millions of pounds; and it makes environmental sense, helping us tackle the twin challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss.”
The research was funded by the Forestry Commission, Scottish Forestry and the Welsh Government.
The UK government pledged to treble tree planting to 7,000 hectares a year by 2024 as part of climate and nature recovery efforts.
Additional reporting by PA