Rob Wolters

Green Mental Health: our mind as a “spark of nature”

Rob Wolters is a rebel and a revolutionary. He traveled the world for nature conservation and protection, experienced how passion for nature can heal people and stood at the cradle of the Green Mental Health Movement in the Netherlands (“De Groene GGZ”), where mental health institutions with green lands open them up for both patients AND the local population. 

Meet this former country boy who loved fishing, witnessed rivers turning black from intensive agriculture poisoning and began an unstoppable career of creating and implementing laws to protect lands and seas in governments and institutions of power. 

He once said to the WHO Director-General during the pandemic that the mental aspects of Corona might be more fearful and that Nature was the answer. And at the worst of that time they listened to him and called him a “revolutionary”. 

The Director of Foundation Nature for Health will be offering a talk during the I Global Summit Science, Nature and Health

Mental Health and Nature: two vulnerable strong forces

“While I was dealing with nature conservation and protection areas and seas, and trying to avoid fishing nets use to end up in oceans and intensive agriculture to harm nature, I started to promote the intrinsic value of nature. And me too, I also experienced nature as a big source of health, of physical and mental health.

“In a way, our mental health compares to nature: it is an vital source, but it is also vulnerable. So one of my decisions was if you join these two vulnerabilities, you can make it a very strong force, where in fact it’s clear that nature is part of us, we feel better because of nature. In urban areas where there is quite a lot of nature there are less people with mental disorders, than those in less greener cities; and in parts of rural areas there are less mental disorders in part thanks to nature connection and more tight social systems

“When I became director of the Foundation Nature for Health, I started promoting how in my view nature is not only a source of biodiversity with intrinsic values, but also because it is a source of mental wellbeing. The presence of parks and nature in the neighborhood can help a lot, even just to see it and also to go there. But to connect to it is even better”. 

The WHO and the Green Mental Health Movement

“During the pandemic I was talking to the Director-General of the World Health Organization and asked him to speak in one of Nature For Health’s  seminars about ‘Healing Landscapes’.  I said to him that I think the mental aspects of corona might be more fearful. During his speech he said nature should be number one for recovering from covid after the pandemic, should be number one in health. He said: ‘We need nature to take care of us, just as much as we need to take care of nature’. – For WHO, this was a rather revolutionary statement, with which I was extremely pleased.

“Two years ago in the Netherlands we started a movement called ‘Groene GGZ’ (‘Green Mental Health’), which has tuition for mental health institutions with green lands. Let’s use more nature for therapies, but for all the people too including health care professionals. So let’s integrate it in neighborhoods, let’s not close it only for ‘people who is mentally ill’ but areas for us all, and keep in mind that for instance in Netherlands 1/4 of the people will have specific mental treatment during a stage in their lives, so there is not that there are a few people that have mental issues, it is a ot of people with mental issues. 

Also, the so called Green Frontrunners of Green Mental Health together have more than 40,000 employees, treat more than 300,000 clients and together have more than one to one and a half National Parks of land. 

“And basically that movement is growing rather successfully now, and it has been taken over by other mental institutions, supported by leaders of the field and nurses, psychologists, psychiatrists, health insurance companies, and it is also having an impact in upgrading biodiversity”. 

I Global Summit issues: young people, loneliness and nature connectedness

“I will also talk about talk about the Dutch Green Mental Health initiative, and also mention how we started the Rethinking Nature movement with young people, with students in particular. Many young people all over the world have mental problems but in the Netherlands there are high percentages with loneliness, anxiety and stress. One simple instrument is to connect to nature more often. Go try to connect, plus go together, and then you combat loneliness and it’s also a way to return a favor to the planet because the more you are connected to nature you are more inclined to do something for nature. 

“It’s not easy, but a lot of people have climate stress and it’s a way to reconnect. I think one of the biggest problems in our society is that we are too disconnected from ourselves, from society, sometimes we are so individual, especially in the West, the connection with society is getting looser and looser, in families too. And this forces more and more problems in our heads

“Reconnecting to yourself, to nature and to society helps you to be stronger, be more resilient, and a simple message says ‘your mind is a spark of nature so try to reconnect, be fascinated, enjoy’. People that go to nature are happier people. 

“I will also give some examples on how this movement is spreading, to my surprise even rapidly. Many mental health institutions are under a lot of pressure, have a lot of waiting lists and still this movement of green mental health is spreading very rapidly.  So, it shows how much potential there is in combining mental health (care) and nature!”.

The young country boy and the rebel scientist  

“I grew up in the north west part of the Netherlands, in West-Friesland, in an area with agriculture and polders where I catched as a young boy a lot of fish, and then literally the streams went black because of agricultural poisoning (DDT). Later, we moved to Venhuizen, near a big lake. IJsselmeer. The polders and the lake is in my blood and that countryside boy is still in my system. That was my first connection with nature. I lived and still live in urban settings as well but I like to have space near and see the sky and experience water and green

“I went to university to study Human Geography in Groningen, what was in practice only Economic Geography, I was rather a rebel because I wanted Environmental Geography… My first publication after I graduated was about nature reserves in urban and rural settings. The conclusion was that the external factors affecting nature and resources will not sustain the qualities because of the drying of the land, and the nutrients lost with agriculture. After my first scientific publication as a geographer I went to work in the government and started doing nature conservation. 

“I worked on legislation for conservation and international legislation for wetlands, and I became responsible in the Dutch central government for coordinating nature in relationship to the European Union. At that time a major EU law, the EU Habitat Directive (Natura 2000) was agreed upon, and I was involved intensively. If you look now, the Netherlands government is blocking a lot of economic developments that are potentially jeapordizing Natura 2000 areas. Because of Natura 2000 it is now a EU rule, we learnt the hard way one can not play around with EU laws.

“So, the inspiration of that young boy in the polders was transported to governmental levels. Then I spread my wings and went to international affairs also related to nature  and sustainability. I was for 20 years the director of a number of international institutions related to sustainability and nature. 

“I’ve been dealing with realities as a scientist and leader of foundations and societies, organizations and governments and I dealt with the protection of seas and the protection of lands. It allowed me to have a good feel of priorities but also of how people deal with nature and how they perceive it. As I worked in the Balkan area I learnt that a few people can have a big impact for the good of nature and societies. A few people with passion can do a lot. And that passion for nature is also healing”.



Ph: Courtesy Rob Wolters

Farah Almazouni. Peter Hall.

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