The power of nature in tackling loneliness and social isolation among vulnerable groups


Researchers in Europe, Australia and Latin America are combining social interactions with the colours, sounds and smells of the natural environment to improve mental health in at-risk communities.

RMIT researchers are discovering how hands-on encounters with nature can strengthen relationships and reduce feelings of isolation among vulnerable groups.

Professor Katherine Johnson, Professor Sarah Bekessy, Dr Nerkez Opacin and Dr Nicholas Hill have partnered with Many Coloured Sky in Melbourne to pilot a series of nature-based activities with a group of asylum seekers and refugees from the LGBTIQA+ community.

The circumstances left behind and the difficult path to reach Australia have left individuals struggling with poor mental health, compounded by feelings of disconnectedness not uncommon among vulnerable populations.

The pilot study in Melbourne is one of six taking place as part of the Re-imagining Environments for Connection and Engagement: Testing Actions for Social Prescribing in Natural Spaces (RECETAS) project, which involves RMIT Europe.

The European and Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) funded project focuses on nature-based social prescribing – activities which promote contact with nature to strengthen social structures and improve mental and physical health.

“Many of us have experienced first-hand the positive effect that nature can have on our emotional and physical wellbeing,” said Professor Sarah Bekessy from the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies.

“In this project we are looking at how immersion in the natural environment with people in a similar position can benefit and positively impact upon mental health and wellbeing of some of our most vulnerable communities.”

The researchers are finding out how this works in practice, accompanying the group and visiting nature spots in the Metropolitan Melbourne area – all of which are accessible by public transport – over several weeks.

“The study brings together people who have never met and differ in terms of religious and cultural backgrounds,” said Dr Nerkez Opacin from the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies.

“Before we go anywhere, we run a focus group to encourage the first social interactions – we also assess the participants’ baseline relationships with nature from which to measure the program’s impact on feelings of loneliness, connectedness and quality of life.”

/RMIT University News Release. View in full here.