Mindful Men, in the Woods

by Assistant Forest Manager, Rob Coltman

In this blog I’d like to talk about Men’s Health Week (which runs this week from 10th– 16th of June) in the context of mental health and forestry, and how I feel the industry is in a good position to promote mental health to its members and the wider public.

Before I start, I’d like to acknowledge the increasing number of women joining the forestry industry in the UK. This is undeniably a positive improvement in the diversity of our field. I couldn’t find any statistics on the UK forestry gender balance, but a casual observation over most sections of the industry reveal that we’re still mostly men (fun fact: I am also a man). As I mentioned before, this blog is going out during Men’s Health Week and as we’re mostly a male industry, it seems pertinent to address the health of men. Though it should be noted that the issues I will attempt to cover can affect us all.

Men’s Health Week is promoted by the Men’s Health Forum, a charity supporting men’s health in England, Wales and Scotland. The charity covers a wide range of issues, including both physical and mental health. This year’s Men’s Health Week topic is ‘By Numbers’, providing clear statistics describing the highest risks to men’s health. For me, some of the most revealing numbers are about mental health. One in eight men are suffering a common mental health disorder. We are three times more likely to be dependent on alcohol than women, more likely to use (and die from) illegal drugs, and far more likely to die from suicide.

How do we begin to approach these issues?

And what can the forestry industry do?

Firstly, Tilhill Forestry recently became a Gold Member of the charity ‘Perennial’, a charity dedicated to helping people who work in horticulture, arboriculture and forestry. Perennial provide free and confidential advice, support and financial assistance to people of all ages working in, or retired from, the industry. I would implore anyone who is struggling, to get in touch with them. More information and how to contact them can be found on their website.

Secondly, we must talk. Barely a day goes by when there isn’t a new famous male figure opening up about his mental health and asking us all to talk about it. The more we talk about mental health, the better we get at communicating it and the stigma surrounding it reduces. The Movember Foundation is a great example of a movement seeking to develop the awareness of male mental health – and the amount of facial hair typically associated with the forestry industry should make us a shoo-in. Ultimately, as there are so many men around in forestry we’ve got no excuse to not talk to each other. We should ensure to make space and time available in our working lives to speak to colleagues. I know we work together all day, but why not take a lunchbreak together? Or a pint at the end of the day?

Thirdly, forests and self-care. A raft of scientific evidence now exists to show the benefits that forests can have on mental health – Tilhill Forestry even made a video about it below:

My own  favoured self-care practice is mindfulness, and to combine it with the experience of being in a forest. The mental health charity, ‘Mind’ define mindfulness as “a technique you can learn which involves making a special effort to notice what’s happening in the present moment (in your mind, body and surroundings) – without judging anything.” I grant that this is going to sound a bit leftfield for some, but the process of paying attention to how we feel can provide greater self-awareness, and information we can then communicate to others. The Forestry Commission has created a guide on how to practice this in the woods, under the now popular heading of ’forest-bathing’ which you can read here.

Just to be clear, I’m not talking about sitting down cross-legged in a painfully un-thinned spruce block or throwing a few yoga poses on a live harvesting site (though feel free if it helps). But for those of us lucky enough in the industry to spend some time in the forest as part of our role, we should remember to find a quiet spot and spend a minute taking it all in. If we in the forestry industry can demonstrate we are mentally benefitting from the nature of forests, then others will follow.

So, men (and anyone else), I urge you to find some woods or another natural space to take a moment in. Breathe and pay attention. Notice how you feel. If you are feeling that something is not right, speak to someone about it. There is always help and support available – and we men, in forestry or otherwise, can be part of that help and support.