Sometimes the simplest remedies escape us. With UK mental health charity MIND advocating (since 2007), that ecotherapy should be recognised as a “clinically-valid frontline treatment for mental health problems”, and the NICE guidelines on depression recommending “a structured group physical activity programme” and “mindfulness-based” activities, treatment for mental health problems is within reach and low-cost.
Whether we call it ecotherapy or just intuitive good sense, we can hope to see more happening in this direction as professional public awareness converge.
Ecotherapy combines contact with the natural world and ideas from brief therapy, to reduce distress, enhance wellbeing and teach techniques for personal development. Contact with the natural environment enhances physical health and mental wellbeing, connecting with nature helps us re-connect with ourselves, heals us and builds resilience.
Mankind’s relationship with the natural environment has been one of our defining characteristics throughout our history. Perhaps we did not see the natural world and the wildness of ‘out there’ as healing, nor seek solace in the forest or inspiration in the landscape, until we felt the need of an antidote to the toxicity of the industrial societies we had created. Perhaps we did not crave it until we had begun to lose it.
Nevertheless, the inexorable march away from predominantly rural-living to today’s generalised urban lifestyle has been paralleled by a detachment from the natural environment which approaches isolation. We now spend 95% of our time in constructed environments, very often with little or no visible greenery.
Contact with nature
Our species has spent many millennia in relationships with the natural environment, but have only lived in urban ones for a few hundred years. We apparently have adapted well to urban living, and we all derive benefit from our much improved standards of life today, with its modern amenities and its almost unlimited possibilities. But, though protecting ourselves from nature and the elements, and arranging ourselves in concrete jungles may be practical, and for many of us even desirable, it does not come without a cost.
While the costs are still being catalogued we clearly know that we love to get out into nature. What we are coming to know only lately is just how beneficial that contact is, and in how many ways. There is plenty of evidence to show that regular contact with the natural environment enhances both physical health and mental wellbeing. The consistent message from intuitive good-sense and the research is that contact with green space improves psychological health and mental wellbeing. It reduces stress and improves mood. It provides a restorative environment for people to relax, unwind and recharge their batteries. In walking groups and other outdoor activities connection with nature facilitates social contact and brings people together.
And something deeper is going on too. Any kind of contact with the natural world seems to help, from digging the allotment to weeding waste ground in city centres and contact with animals. Informal groups are springing up everywhere with volunteers clearing the countryside, restoring canals and the like, and flashmobs descending on city wasteground to provide natural enclaves amid urban chaos.
At a more formal level, as evidence for the therapeutic benefits of spending time out of doors is mounting, there are increasingly efforts to encourage us to re-connect with nature. Ever since the term Ecopsychology was coined by cultural historian Theodore Roszak in his book The Voice of the Earth in 1992, what has become known as Ecotherapy has been growing in popularity as a way of helping people to “find inner calm, patience, new inspiration, insight, or new approaches to problems.” (Ecotherapy UK). These green approaches to therapy have been pioneered in the UK by the mental health charity MIND.
Though we are part of the natural environment that sustains us we are also separate entities in our own right. Conscious acceptance of this means that we must also accept that we possess an inner world of imagination which is different from, though connected to, the world of external reality.
Anthony Storr says that it is the disparity between the two worlds which motivates creative imagination, and that people who realise their creative potential are constantly bridging the gap between these inner and outer worlds. “They invest the external world with meaning because they embrace both”, he says.
With a therapist as facilitator and guide, Ecotherapy combines discussion with purposeful walking and exercises of the imagination in natural and inspiring settings. People find the experience enjoyable and beneficial in ways that often surprise them, and they become more resilient and are better able to weather the inevitable ups and downs of life.
When we learn and develop ways of engaging more purposefully with our lives we are able to care more for others and their surroundings. Ecotherapy creates opportunities for us to do this.
Anthony Storr, Solitude, 2018
Theodore Roszak The Voice of the Earth, New edition 2002