Wales

Mental health: Gower forestry and building project 'helping recovery'

The project was set up 15 years ago on Gower
Image caption The project was set up 15 years ago on Gower

A project to help people with health problems including strokes or depression to regain their independence has been praised in new research.

Down to Earth provides outdoor experiences on Gower - like forestry and building work - to help give people the confidence to return to work.

Researchers at Swansea University analysed its effectiveness, published in the Journal of Mental Health.

One said it had a more lasting effect than the traditional clinical approach.

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Media caption"I want to get back to work and say 'yay, I did it!"

'I wanted to find things that would bring back the old me'

Sara Thomas-Nosman, from Morriston, Swansea, was running two businesses and looking after three children when she had a stroke three years ago.

"I woke up in hospital blind and paralysed all down my left side - it's like you've woken up but you're half dead.

"You're grieving for the 'old you' to come back," she said.

It took her three months to walk again and she made physical progress - apart from the loss of movement in one arm - but it also affected her emotions and confidence.

Ms Thomas-Nosman, 51, came to Down To Earth and said the empathy and activities were a "vital part" of her getting better.

This included being outdoors, working with wood, learning forestry skills and being part of a team.

"I wanted to find things that would bring back the old me - confidence. And it made me feel worth something."

She has now come back as a mentor and to help patients with Parkinson's disease.

She has also learned how to be a CCTV operator and is now looking for work.

"I want to prove I'm employable - my brain is fine, it's just my arm doesn't work."

Image caption There is a mix of practical, outdoor work and spending time with other people

Down to Earth has been offering courses for the last nine years and takes referrals from three health boards and local colleges.

People learn how to make things and do "back to nature" activities outside including constructing buildings out of traditional materials like wood and mud.

It is a mix of practical, outdoor work, being with other people and getting time to discuss their challenges with professionals in a relaxed atmosphere.

Jason Davies, a psychologist at Swansea University, carried out independent research into the impact of eight-week courses and said people made "significant gains," as well as learning new skills.

He described the work as a "very exciting first step" and said it had a more lasting effect than the traditional clinical approach.

Image caption Kate Denner works with groups at the project and is a trained psychologist

Tutor Kate Denner said it was not "just a day out in the woods" and the latest research had underlined how it worked.

"In a short period of time, you watch the group really come together," she said. "People refer to us like a family."

One man recovering from a stroke was able to go back to work and his family had noticed a difference around the house.

Kate added: "He said his children said to tell us 'thank you for giving us our daddy back'."

Prof Davies said helping people gain independence and confidence could only enhance their ability to get back into work or education.

"I'd hope this becomes a launch pad for research not only into Down to Earth but into others schemes like this."

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