They have been heralded as one of the biggest and most sustainable options in the fight against climate breakdown, but now Scotland’s woodlands have been proven to positively impact mental health too.

New research, funded by Scottish Forestry, has revealed the power of woodland-based photography in improving mental health and wellbeing.

The Wellbeing of the Woods (WOW) photography collaborative project between Scottish Forestry and Open Aye, which operates participatory social action research projects for the public and third sector, has been running since 2017.

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Around 200 people from 20 countries have taken part in the Glasgow-based project, each living with one of a range of mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, learning difficulties and PTSD. 

Participants were recruited from partner organisations including Glasgow Association of Mental Health, the Refugee Council and The British Red Cross to take part in 250 photography sessions in green spaces across Scotland, where they were invited to explore creative practice in a woodland environment

The project is designed to provide people with varying needs a natural and creative space in which to help improve their own personal sense of wellbeing.

Open Aye provided durable waterproof cameras, photographic inspiration, advice for taking better pictures, and a safe space within the woodlands to explore and appreciate nature. 

A spokeswoman for the charity said: “During this creative immersion in green spaces we enhance our own ability to visually interpret what we see in a different light. Participants finish the session uplifted, invigorated and with some new found knowledge of photography, woodlands and each other. 

“Feedback from participants and partner organisations has shown that the therapeutic effect of this methodology is both transformational and long lasting on people’s health and wellbeing. The WOW project has enabled us to specifically empower diverse groups to help define what wellbeing means to different people. 

“Using a woodland setting has proven to have a profound impact on those involved.”

Everyone who took part reported improved states of wellbeing, with most also stating they enjoyed being in the woodland environment and would return again, that they felt more confident about accessing and using the woods, and had improved their skills in outdoor photography, nature identification, and group working.

A number of sessions have taken place as part of the Mental health Foundation’s Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival, in spring 2017, 2018 and 2019. 

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Images created by participants are primarily for their eyes only for therapeutic purposes, but a small selection of images and quotes have been donated to Scottish Forestry for use.

A small free-standing exhibition was created and displayed in 2019 at the Moving Minds Exhibition at Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Museum, as part of Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival. 
It is hoped the work will be shown at the Scottish Parliament in 2020, to raise awareness of the project and its positive outcomes. 

Many who took part in the WOW project had never accessed woodland spaces in this way before. Each session, due to the changing weather and surrounding nature, was unique and offered new perspectives to participants.

The combination of physical activity, sensory stimulation, social interaction and sensitive facilitation by Open Aye staff meant that participants reported feeling more confident, more able to work with others, and having vastly improved their photography skills.

Open Aye has run more than 35 major participatory projects in the last nine years with many involving creative outdoor activities with similar positive outcomes.

Romena Huq, Engagement Programme Manager for Scottish Forestry, said it was amazing to hear of such positive results from every WOW participant after just three years of the programme. 

She said: “It’s fascinating to see the positive impact that a woodland setting can have on a person’s mental health. 
“With our lives now being more hectic than ever, we would encourage people to take advantage of this natural therapy, take a break and visit their local woodlands over the holidays.”


HeraldScotland: Woodland spaces across Scotland were used to help build confidence and develop photography skillsWoodland spaces across Scotland were used to help build confidence and develop photography skills

Becky Duncan, Director at Open Aye, said: “Our WOW project has shown that everyone can benefit from being creative in a woodland environment. Taking photos in nature enables us to see things differently, makes us slow down, pay attention to our senses and encourages us to really appreciate our surroundings. 

“Photo walking in the woods is a gentle activity, open to all and it’s free. It will relax and invigorate in equal measure. A great thing to do in the woods, whatever the weather.”