After the death of their mum three years ago, Jacqui Phillips became a carer for her brother Chris who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in 2001.
Jacqui saw Chris was struggling to cope without his mum who he depended on for everything, but she noticed a positive difference in him when they went for long walks together.
Jacqui from Newtongrange in Midlothian said: “Seeing your brother change from a smiley, cheeky teenager to someone you do not recognise is very difficult. When our mum passed away in 2015 it left a huge void in all of our lives, especially my brother’s as she had been his rock. Seeing the forlorn look in my brother’s eyes, I felt I was on the verge of losing him too. I was determined that was not going to happen.
"When we spent time walking in the woods, his condition improved; the voices he heard as part of his condition diminished, he smiled more often and he sometimes seemed more like the brother I used to know. Seeing this made me think that perhaps other people with mental health issues could benefit from the same experience."
Jacqui spent the best part of a year getting her woodland walking group set up.
Her brother’s social worker put her in touch with the NHS, where an occupational therapist pointed her in the right direction to allow her to register as a NHS Lothian volunteer. She was PVG checked, completed online training and attended Paths for All’s Walk Leader training.
“Several referrals were made from the Joint Mental Health Team and our first walk was arranged in the summer of 2017,” said Jacqui. “It was a very scary experience for me as I had never done anything like this before.”
Almost a year-and-a-half on, the Woodland Wanderers is going strong. This entirely volunteer-run group meets fortnightly for a walk around Dalkeith Country Park to enjoy nature, look at leaves and seeds through hand lenses and listen to birdsong and the wind in the trees. The group has 12 regular walkers including those referred from Bonnyrigg Primary Care Centre which supports people with chronic mental health conditions.
Jacqui said: “Since attending the walks, the walkers’ carers and support workers have noticed a change in the participants. Over time they are able to walk faster and further but the benefits aren’t just physical. They’re quite willing to open up now. They can talk about their problems and they know they’re not the only one out there. There are friendships being made. I don’t know what they’re like in their own house or whatever but when they’re with us they’re laughing and smiling, they’re giggling.
“They continue to enjoy being outdoors after the Health Walk too, gathering around a picnic bench with a flask of hot drinks. We also use activities such as badminton, Frisbee throwing, arts/crafts, pond dipping and football to make sure the day is as fun as possible.
“Seeing them smile makes me happy actually. I feel I’ve done something and everybody’s happy. This is something I never thought I’d do. I look forward to it – I feel exhilarated when I go back home! I love taking them out, I really do.
“Chris is still my inspiration, and also my mum who made me promise that I’d look after him.”
Jacqui would now like to set up a new Health Walk in the local community that is open to everyone. If you are interested, please contact Jacqui on firstname.lastname@example.org or call 07749 468930.