The Natural Health Service: How Nature Can Mend Your Mind by Isabel Hardman

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The Natural Health Service: How Nature Can Mend Your Mind by Isabel Hardman

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Buy The Natural Health Service: How Nature Can Mend Your Mind by Isabel Hardman at Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com

Category: Lifestyle
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: It comes with no guarantees but it just might improve your mental health. Highly recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 336 Date: April 2020
Publisher: Atlantic Books
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1786495907

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Isabel Hardman suffered a trauma which she chooses not to share. She says that a friend who does know, burst into tears and health-care professionals' jaws have sagged in disbelief. Hardman dealt with this at the time by 'keeping going': the next day she went to work to cover the budget, next there was the EU referendum, the political party leadership contests and then it was party conference season. One night she had to be sedated and returned home to begin long-term sick leave. That was what brought me to this book: 2020 was the year when the bins went out more often than I did.

For me there was a long-buried trauma brought into the daylight by what might have seemed to be a minor incident. I've always had mild agoraphobia: lockdown had allowed it to blossom and that minor incident meant that I dreaded leaving the house and even the garden had ceased to be a place of safety. I needed help but I couldn't see any point in calling the doctor's surgery: appointments are rarer than hen's teeth and I'd only be given a prescription. I needed a plan - not drugs. I didn't feel that I was that ill.

Hardman had reached the stage where she couldn't get her words to sit in a row which is more than awkward when you're a journalist. Even after her long-term sick leave, she would have several relapses and has concluded that she will never be the person she was and will probably never be able to talk publicly about what happened to her. She has been prescribed drugs but found that she needed something else. She found something to help quell her churning mind and she calls it The Natural Health Service: I would probably have called it the great outdoors.

She had always had a passion for gardening and a deep interest in botany, so her first steps were to take an obsessive interest in wildflowers, starting with orchids. The first step forward was when a rare orchid gave her twenty minutes of mental peace - when she wasn't thinking about herself. The distraction soothed her mind and so began the quest for other ways in which she could do something outside which would increase the periods of calm.

Hardman was disturbed by the cost of getting better: anyone who is this ill is almost certainly off work and possibly not earning. Who, she asks, has savings these days? So she looked at ways of distracting her mind which would not be expensive to anyone in this position. After looking at wildflowers, she considered gardening, birdwatching, the quest for rare snowdrops, walking, forest bathing, trees and running. They're all approached from the point of view of someone who does not have a great deal of money to spare: her major extravagance was a snowdrop, Lady Elphinstone, which cost £40. She suggests that your bank manager might steer you away from snowdrops!

The Natural Health Service is not promised as a cure-all but Hardman offers her suggestions with compassion and the level of research is impressive but you never feel over-burdened or pressured into doing something you might not enjoy. Searching out flowers (she had successes in Glasgow car parks) is never going to be for me but I am determined that I am going to get out and walk more. I used to be a great deal fitter than I am now so I will build up my distances and by spring I would like to be getting up to the moors.

The style of writing makes the book very accessible and it's frequently funny. I felt inspired to do something to help myself, to take responsibility for my mental health. My first step: Hardman suggested looking for a small sign of hope. Without much confidence, I went to my office window, looked down on the lilac tree and before the middle of December spotted the green buds which will be next year's flowers and leaves.

I'd like to thank the publishers for letting Bookbag have a review copy.

The various outdoor distractions are covered only briefly. If you'd like more information, we can recommend:

Veg Street: Grow Your Own Community by Naomi Schillinger: Hardman actually references this book and Bookbag thought that it was accessible and empowering.

How to be a BAD Birdwatcher by Simon Barnes eases you into the hobby very steadily and looks for a stress-free approach.

Out of the Woods: the armchair guide to trees by Will Cohu: information delivered in a user-friendly manner with plenty of humour.

Running Like A Girl by Alexandra Heminsley: our reviewer described the book as uplifting and inspiring.

A Philosophy of Walking by Frederic Gros: insightful and a book to return to.

The Book of Orchids: A life-size guide to six hundred species from around the world by Mark Chase, Maarten Christenhusz and Tom Mirenda: just because they're so beautiful!

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