The Black Summer bushfires reached the south-west slopes of New South Wales in the final week of 2019. Within two weeks, three fires had merged to form a devastating 600,000 hectare megafire that claimed several lives and destroyed hundreds of homes.
The emotional toll on the Snowy Valleys community, which fell at the junction of the fires, was immense. When mental health clinicians Jacinta Elphick and Jenni Wines were appointed by the Murrumbidgee Local Health District in bushfire recovery roles in mid-2020, they encountered a community in crisis.
Lives, livelhoods and natural landscapes had been lost. The Snowy Valleys council was one of the three most severely economically affected local government areas and the environmental damage was too severe for many residents to face.
“It was universal grief,” Elphick says. “We’d lost iconic landmarks, like the Sugar Pine walk, and people were conflicted over what was cleaned up and what wasn’t.
“Plus there was the continued threat of having nature so close to you [after such devastating bushfires].”
Wines says people were stuck in a stress response, desperately trying to tidy up but grieving even the removal of the mess.
“It was hard at the time to get people to see the value in slowing down, to acknowledge their grief and loss and take care of themselves and their loved ones,” she says.
As they were grappling with how to support the community, they attended a talk hosted by NSW Health about the health benefits of engaging with the natural environment, or issuing “green prescriptions”.
The talk was by Waminda Parker and Dr Miles Holmes from nature wellness social enterprise The Connective. They discussed methods to promote nature connections for improved mental health.
Elphick recalls thinking, “That’s it! That’s what we need!”
Parker and Holmes had developed a program to create experiences that guide people to reconnect with nature and then reap the physical and mental benefits.
“If all of human history on the planet was 24 hours, we would have been urban people for less than five seconds of that,” Holmes says.
“We are hardwired to connect with nature.
“But over time, western systems have pulled this stuff apart. We draw on scientific research and collaboration with Indigenous groups to help people remember those connections.”
Their program, Nature Fix, is part of a movement to revolutionise how design and planning are approached. Waminda says while just getting people out in nature is good for their physical and mental health, “if you can get people to stop and pause and notice and appreciate, you get all these extra benefits”.
Southern Cross University behavioural psychologist Dr Eric Brymer is an expert in the field of health, exercise and outdoor studies. He says something special happens when we take our bodies outside and move them around.
“There are thousands of papers on this, all from different backgrounds – psychology, horticulture, education, public health – examining the effect of the natural world on wellbeing,” he says.
“There is something about exercise in nature that is really impactful for our health.”
Brymer is a research fellow at regional mental health body the Manna Institute and has a special interest in how extreme weather events affect mental health.
He says while Australia still lacks the infrastructure needed to support so-called social prescriptions (which includes advice to spend time in nature), it has the potential to be world-leading.
“There’s an enormous amount of work happening at a grassroots level,” he says.
That includes the program Elphick and Wines are running in the Snowy Mountains, as well as therapeutic horticulture organisations and groups running adventure courses for teenagers dealing with trauma.
The program developed in the Snowy Valley is an app that maps out a scenic drive winding from Adelong to Khancoban, with a series of 40 scripts and guided activities that invite the user to slow down and absorb the multisensory details of nature, whether that is reclining in a sky seat at the Pilot Hill Arboretum or treading the Labyrinth for Peace at Tumut.
Sue Bulger, a Wiradjuri, Wolgalu and Ngunnawal elder and CEO of the Brungle-Tumut Local Aboriginal Land Council, voices the welcome to country in the app. She has long known that nature “revives the spirit”.
“If you separate from nature, the spirit will suffer,” she says. “Nature has a way of pulling us back to itself, but too often we ignore those signals.”
The Snowy Valleys mayor, Ian Chaffey, says he found the initiative “hard to understand” at first “ but the more I related it to my own experiences of the bush, the more I got it”.
Chaffey says he has already seen the impact the wellness trail is having on individuals.
”I would suggest that any local body aiming to address the mental health of their community should look seriously at something like this,” he says.
Michelle Haines Thomas is a freelance journalist from the NSW southern highlands