WHEN the Church Times was approached to run the first-ever Green Health Awards, we were enthusiastic but apprehensive. Despite our strong support over many years for both the environmental movement (see next week’s issue) and the Church’s healing ministry (see this week’s features), we had seen little evidence that churches had brought the two together, using their green spaces for community healing projects. We were assured by our partners, the Conservation Foundation and the Guild of Health and St Raphael, that such projects existed, and so it proved. Although the number of entries was relatively small, they were inspiring. There is strong feeling that this is a pioneer ministry whose time has come.
One important indicator of this is that attitudes in the medical profession and, more importantly, within the medical bureaucracy to non-pharmaceutical therapies have shifted significantly in the past year or two. Attention is now being given to the large body of evidence that points to the efficacy of both gardening and simply spending time outdoors within a green space. There is a new emphasis on “social prescribing”, which might include what a London health leaflet calls “green activity”. This is not simply because of the recognised limits of drug-based treatment, or the swamping of the NHS counselling service. There are three key factors, the first of which is the prevalence of mental illness, especially among the young. One third of university freshers who answered a large-scale survey reported a significant mental problem, most typically “major depression”. Young people with fewer prospects are likely to fare worse. The second factor is a clearer understanding of how pain works. As our feature (page 26) sketches out, the body’s pain-messaging system is remarkably complex, involving two-directional pathways to and from the brain. Emotions, unconscious triggers, conscious activities such as prayer and exercise, or environmental elements can all enhance or inhibit the amount of pain that an individual feels.
The third factor is a fuller picture of what good health looks like. Learning to live well and stay well encompasses a host of elements that reach far beyond the scope of the medical profession — though they have to pick up the pieces when these elements are absent. These elements include a healthy balance between work and leisure, a sense of identity and worth, decent housing, an untroubled conscience, an adequate income, and a right relationship with oneself, one’s neighbours, one’s world, and one’s God. This is not an easy fix, but a lifetime’s work, and it is good when, on a few occasions now, the medical profession has been able to look up from its triage of the most desperate patients and seek to promote good health. For the Church, this is undoubtedly Christ’s work. It is, therefore, immensely encouraging to hear from the Green Health award-winners about the fruits of their green activity. The green touch-paper has been lit.