As a species we are intimately connected with, embedded in, and inseparable from nature. We have an innate emotional and physical dependency on our natural environment. With our “ecological unconscious” considered to be the foundation of our sanity.
As we have developed into an industrial and globalised society we have increasingly replaced nature and all things natural with artificial man-made creations. There is increasing to evidence suggest that this is having a negative impact on our overall mental health and well-being. Depression affects about 121 million people worldwide. The World Health Organization predicts depression will be the second greatest cause of ill health globally by 2020.
In the UK depression affects one in 10 people each year, with more than half of those experiencing more than one episode. According to official statistics, the percentage of people with a “common mental disorder” increased from 15.5% in 1993 to 17.6% in 2007. This is about an additional million extra unhappy people.
In 2008 in England there were 2.1 million more prescriptions of antidepressants than in 2007, leading to concerns that doctors are increasingly supplying the drugs as a “quick fix” without attempting to address the underlying cause of the problems. In total, 36 million prescriptions were given out, an increase of 24% over the past five years.
A survey by The Mental Health Foundation shows that three quarters of UK family doctors have prescribed anti-depressants even though they think another treatment would have been more effective. The Foundation advocates mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) which halves the risk of further bouts of depression.
The use of anti-depressants such as Prozac or sessions of cognitive therapy are increasingly seen as failing to deal with the root cause of many mental health problems – our dysfuctional and unnatural way of life. Ecotherapy has been developed to respond to this problem.
Ecotherapy can be defined as healing and growth nurtured by healthy interaction with the earth. It is considered to be a form of applied Ecopsychology. Ecotherapists address common difficulties such as anxiety, depression and stress using nature-based methods to enhance physical and mental healing.
Ecotherapeutic methods include reconnecting with nature and ones own body, working with plants and animals, voluntary simplicity, detaching from rigid artificial time schedules, changing home and working environments, dream therapy focusing on nature and wilderness retreats.
A book published by the Sierra Club entitled Ecotherapy – Healing with Nature in Mind edited by Linda Buzzell and Craig Chalquist examines the background, methods and practices of ecotherapy. It covers the practice form working from both inside and outside, using community as ecotherapy as well as ecospirituality. The book is a companion to the earlier Sierra Club publication on Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind edited by Theordore Roszak et al. Both books provide a valuable introduction to the theory of ecopsychology and the practice of ecotherapy.
The belief that the natural environment is good for our mental and physical well-being is not new. Many medical professions including Florence Nightingale encouraged people to go the country to convalesce. The natural environment is seen as being beneficial – a “restorative environment” – which enhances mental energies and reduces stress. Research has show that prisoners whose cells overlooked farmland and trees had 24 per cent fewer sick visits than those in cells facing the prison yard. A ten-year comparative study of post-operative patients found hospital stay for patients with tree views was significantly shorter, they required fewer painkillers, used less medication, and nursing staff reported fewer negative evaluation comments in the medical record.
A study by the mental health charity, Mind, found that 90 per cent of people who took part in Mind green exercise activities said that the combination of nature and exercise is most important in determining how they feel. A total of 71 per cent of respondents reported decreased levels of depression following a green walk compared to increased feelings of depression following an indoor shopping centre walk which was experienced by 22 per cent of respondents while 33 per cent of people expressed no change in their level of depression.
In our Western, industrialised and individualistic culture we often see ourselves separate and distinct from the natural world around us. If we are to address the cause of the current environmental crisis and the impact it is having on our physical and mental well-being then we need to develop a sense of connectedness with nature.
Ecotherapy provides the natural way to healing mind and will help us rediscover our ecological roots. That is why the recommendations in Mind’s Green Agenda for Mental Health calling for ecotherapy to be become a clinically valid treatment option for mental distress should be adopted before it is too late.
© Gary Haq 2010
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