Rooting for each other

Becky Boulton, a Green Hero at Octopus Energy, shares why the team is planting 20,000 trees in support of veteran mental health

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Published: 4 May 2022

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It’s 9am and I’m at Garn Wen Farm. Mist rolls over the hills of Gwent and into the valley below.

Today colleagues from Octopus Energy and I are joining service leavers from the Green Task Force, a subsidiary of the PATT Foundation set up by Dr Andrew Steel in 2005.

The organisation changes lives: it uses nature-based therapy to provide a pathway to employment for veterans who have struggled with mental health issues such as PTSD.

Getting trees in the ground

Our mission over the next few weeks is to plant 20,000 native hedgerow and broadleaf trees, ranging from beech to hawthorn. The goal is to account for the emissions produced by our non-electric vans in 2021; as the trees grow, they will absorb greenhouse gases and create a habitat for wildlife in this corner of Wales.

It might sound like a colossal task, but with the right tools (and military precision) the borders of the first field are planted in a matter of hours, leaving enough time for a well-earned tea break and a chat with the team.

Opening up

Talking is important when it comes to mental health, but it’s not always easy.

In the UK as many as one in six adults experience anxiety or depression every week, and the number of veterans struggling is even higher. Creating a safe space for honest conversation is crucial, particularly with research showing that men are typically less likely to open up.

With that in mind, as I stepped into the barn that had become our makeshift tea station I was pleasantly surprised to find a group of veterans discussing the advantages of forest bathing, and the health benefits of filling your hands with soil and taking a deep whiff.

‘I learned recently that if you put your hands or feet in mud, the enzymes go into your bloodstream and it calms you down’, one tells me, introducing himself as Dave.

The benefits of getting outside

Dave’s passion is immediately clear and, like the rest of the group, he is incredibly open and welcoming. He tells me about the 14 years he spent aboard submarines, serving in the Royal Navy. ‘I enjoyed it but it’s the little things you miss – fresh air, birds twittering in the trees. You really appreciate things a lot more’, he said.
 
Dave suffered from depression after leaving the forces and being evicted from his home. After being taken in by the Hull Veterans Support Centre, he began working at Green Task Force.

‘The biggest thing for me has been meeting people who have had some kind of stress or problem in life’, Dave says. ‘No one’s afraid to talk about it. People are happy to share those experiences and they’re genuine with them as well. If one person talks about it and puts their hand up, other people do, too.’

The group’s stories are often as shocking as they are inspiring. Many live with PTSD and have had experiences of anxiety and depression – not just as a consequence of their time in the forces, but also as a result of transitioning back to life as a civilian.

For some of these people, the opportunity to work outside and in an environment where talking about their struggles is actively encouraged has been life saving.

‘I couldn’t put a price on the value of what the great outdoors actually gives’, says Paul Sykes, chief executive of the PATT Foundation; ‘to get people out here today, doing something really good like tree planting – giving them the community that they’re used to. They feel like they’ve come home again.’

‘It’s good for the soul’

12 Octopus employees came to muck in over the course of the project – all welcomed with open arms before being shown the ropes. With this kind of warmth presented so readily, it’s easy to see how valuable such a supportive community has been for the whole Green Task Force team.

For everyone here, fresh air and feeling part of a positive change is something to be proud of. ‘It’s good for the soul’, says Dave. ‘It’s nice to see the sun come out again for some people.’

The 20,000 trees we get in the ground will capture tonnes of CO2, a huge contributor to climate change, while also helping to support native wildlife in the area at a time when UK biodiversity needs our help the most.

41% of UK species have declined since the 1970s as a result of habitat loss and warming temperatures; we are making it part of our mission to see those numbers improve while we do our bit to tackle climate change. 

Developing skills

Green Task Force has its sights set on more ambitious ventures in the future, and intends to support even more people struggling with mental health issues across the UK.

The team’s first priority is to grow its own saplings in the three new greenhouses, an operation that will give veterans the chance to develop skills in horticulture.

With the help of the therapist Green Task Force is soon to hire, this will also become a new aspect of the nature-based therapy. There is an exciting road ahead for the Green Task Force, and we’re looking forward to watching the organisation grow.

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