The boost to mental health and wellbeing caused by people spending time in the UK’s woodlands saves the health service and employers around £185 million each year, according to new research.
Published during National Tree Week, the research is the first attempt to quantify the benefit to mental health and wellbeing of the UK’s woodlands.
It found woodlands save £141 million in mental health care costs in England, £26 million in Scotland, £13 million in Wales and £6 million in Northern Ireland.
Annual NHS spending on mental health treatment will be £14.3 billion in 2020/21, according to NHS England data.
The report’s authors, Government funded company Forest Research, said the total savings figure was likely to be an underestimate.
The research excludes people who visit woodlands regularly only in some months of the year but not in others, for example summer and winter, but not in spring.
One of the main drivers of the boost to wellbeing is likely to be the increased physical exercise, the researchers said, but other factors that are more difficult to measure are also likely to be at play.
They cite the example of “forest bathing” – the practice of mindfulness in woodlands, often while walking, accompanied by activities such as meditative breathing exercises.
Funded by the Forestry Commission, Scottish Forestry and the Welsh Government, the study was based on 2016 research that found weekly visits to outdoor green spaces of at least 30 minutes can reduce the prevalence of depression in the population by 7%.
Using this starting point, the researchers compared this 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% of respondents in England and Northern Ireland visited woodland at least several times a month, while in Wales this figure was an estimated at 44%, rising to 51% among people in Scotland.
Around 3.3% of UK adults have a diagnosis of depression, 5.9% suffer from anxiety and a further 7.8% have a common, unspecified mental health disorder, according to NHS data.
In 2020, it cost the NHS an estimated £1,640 to treat a patient with depression and £705 to treat someone with anxiety.
It takes into account visits to the GP, prescription costs, inpatient care, social services and the number of working days lost to mental health issues.
The report also considered the value of trees in streets, and found they potentially shave £16 million off the cost to the NHS each year of treating poor mental health.
It predicts that over the next 100 years, the mental health benefits of visits to woodlands will save £11 billion, with street trees saving a further £1 billion.
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.”
He added: “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.”
Forestry Commission chairman Sir William Worsley said: “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 to tackle the twin challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss.”
The research found almost half the UK population say they are now spending more time outside than before the pandemic, and a majority agreed they felt happier when in woodlands and nature.
The UK Government has pledged to increase tree-planting to 30,000 hectares per year by the end of this Parliament.