How nature can support recovery and wellbeing
21st February 2017
In this article Alasdair Taylor, Ecotherapy Practitioner and Executive Director of Earth for Life, tells us about ecotherapy and how nature can support mental health recovery and wellbeing.
The woods are an extraordinary place — the quiet hum of the city becomes silent when surrounded by nature. We often forget that we are all a part of nature. Life moves in cycles; waves move in and out; plants are reborn; creatures are created; nature passes on and leaves behind a world for the next cycle to thrive in. Relax, remind yourself that we are all connected; we move as one.
Do you find the above quote appealing? If so it might remind you of happy, pleasant times you spent in the woods; it might arouse a longing in you to go out and experience what is expressed by the writer. You might also want to know who wrote the book this beautifully-written quote comes from and can you get it from Amazon?
Actually, you are unlikely ever to know the identity of the author, and the book is not available for sale. It comes from a journal whose writer took part in a recent ecotherapy project in Scotland. 
What is Ecotherapy?
The word ‘ecotherapy’ first appears in the early 1990s in a book by Professor of History Theodore Roszack. He sees it as an applied practice of Ecopsychology (also coined by him), which is the psychological study of our relations with the rest of nature. 
The fundamental principle is founded on the idea that people can heal their minds through a positive connection with nature, and that the natural world can benefit from this as people learn to be more aware of, care more about and take better care of our natural environment. This presumes that ‘humans and nature’ are one and the same, inseparable parts of our planetary ecosystem and if one is not well, the other cannot be well.
Howard Clinebell, in Healing Ourselves, Healing the Earth, published a few years later, defines ecotherapy as “…healing and growth nurtured by healthy interaction with the earth…”. 
This appears to give ecotherapy a wide remit. Indeed, ecotherapist and writer Linda Buzzell describes it as “an umbrella term for nature-based methods of physical and psychological healing”. 
How it is done
There are many approaches to and methods of ecotherapeutic work. My survey of them ranges from:
- Individual and group psychotherapy sessions which take place in suitable outdoor locations.
- Exploring wild places and green spaces through ‘mindfulness’ exercises which involve sitting, standing, walking talking and writing, paying close attention to the surrounding environment and to thoughts, emotions and sensations in the body.
- Guided walks where participants share knowledge of the ecology, beauty and wonder of the natural world around them.
- Art, craft and drama activities which use natural materials and/or record or express perceptions of the place where they happen.
- Bushcraft and survival activities which empower participants to work with nature while building a skills base, which in turn builds confidence and a sense of healthy self-reliance.
- Games which encourage the use of all the senses, stimulate the imagination, encourage group bonding and give rise to laughter and light-hearted play.
- Activities which restore and protect the ‘more-than-human’ world. These take the form of what is commonly known as ‘conservation’ or ‘regeneration’ work.
- Gardening and horticultural activities which involve growing food for healthy eating, flowers for beauty and a variety of plants that attract and support a range of wildlife, from bees to butterflies to birds.
The mass destruction of habitats, species and ecosystems is concurrent with many millions of humans experiencing displacement, starvation, loneliness, isolation and deteriorating physical and mental health, even in the economically-wealthiest countries. For these reasons, all theory and practice of ecotherapy is a two-way street: healing ourselves means healing the earth as well. In practical ecotherapy work, this can be done at a very local level, with positive outcomes for all beings – not just humans.
When it comes to caring for people who partake in ecotherapy, ethical considerations broadly follow the same guidelines as currently exist in the health, education and social care sectors. Where formal ecotherapy activities take place, these need to be facilitated by appropriately trained and qualified staff.
How can nature support our recovery and wellbeing?
While the term ‘ecotherapy’ is relatively new, some of its principles and practice are certainly not. Before the middle of the 20th century, psychiatric hospitals, or ‘asylums’ had limited resources to promote recovery and maintain wellbeing of those entrusted to their care. It was found that giving patients time in fresh air and sunshine, doing exercise, cultivating food and managing woodlands improved their physical wellbeing, reduced stress and diminished the incidence of hallucinations and violent behaviour.
By the 1950s, a wide variety of psychoactive drugs had hit the market. These were seen to have rapid and strong impact on ‘problematic’ symptoms and behaviour. The rise of psychotherapy also brought group and individual talking therapies and ECT into common practice. And so the treatment of mental ill-health retreated indoors, with patients sedated, stabilised, and occupied with more sedentary activities. Staff taking patients outdoors became less conventional and more procedurally problematic. The drugs tend to treat the symptoms rather than the whole being and the lack of exercise worsens physical health, which in turn creates a barrier to mental health recovery.
While the resurgence of nature-based therapy begun to acquire a strong ethical and theoretical base since the 1990s, and more recently there has been a major upsurge in the amount of data which shows that ecotherapy really works, it is still not widely viewed as an orthodox form of treatment and seems far from being a ‘mainstream’ mode of treatment in most western countries, including the UK. However, the wheel is turning, and now ecotherapy is rapidly becoming more popular, and is beginning to prove itself as a healthy way to recovery, sustainable and cost-effective, with few if any negative side effects. In recent years, some ground-breaking studies have been carried out on some highly successful ecotherapy projects right here in the UK and, indeed, in Scotland. Watch out for more on these exciting developments in future editions of SRN’s eUpdate.
- This person agreed that this piece could be published in an in-house project magazine, whose contents could be anonymously shared to promote and encourage others to come to a wild place for their own recovery and mental wellbeing.
- Theodore Roszak, The Voice of the Earth: An Exploration of Ecopsychology, Phanes, 1992. See also Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind, with Mary E. Gomes and Allen D. Kanner (eds),Sierra Club Books, 1995.
- Cited in Linda Buzzell and Craig Chalquist, ‘Psyche and Nature in a Circle of Healing’ in Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind, e.d Buzzell and Chalquist (eds.), Berkeley, 2009, p16. For a more comprehensive, up-to-date overview about the wide variety of approaches to ecotherapy, see Ecotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, edited by Martin Jordan and Joe Hinds, Macmillan, London, 2016.
- See her blog: http://www.ecotherapyheals.com/whatisecotherapy.html
- Hester Parr, Mental Health and Social Space: Towards Inclusionary Geographies?, Blackwell, 2008, pp.80ff.
Images courtesy of Earth For Life.