What is Ecotherapy?
Ecotherapy is the name given to therapy programmes used to promote mental and physical well-being by encouraging and helping people to take part in outdoor activities and spend time in nature. Many studies have shown that spending time outside and connecting with nature has positive effects on mental health and in boosting mood and self-esteem. Ecotherapy can take place in rural and urban environments and can be as simple as taking a walk through a local park or beach, gardening at home or as part of an organised group or large project such as a local conservation project.
Ecotherapy can be used to help ease or aid recovering from an existing mental health issue or to help prevent the onset of problems when a person is at a high risk time in life: for example preventing depression when recovering from serious illness or after difficult and potentially traumatic life events such as divorce or the death of a loved one. Ecotherapy can be safely used alongside other treatments and therapies as well as medications and completely therapies. Every person’s reasons for taking part in Ecotherapy will be different and although participating in the same activity or group as others, different people may gain more or less or different things from any given activity. That said there have been many common benefits reported by people who have taken part in courses of ecotherapy such as reduced stress levels, improved self-esteem, reduced levels of depression, and increase in fitness through taking regular exercise, making new friends and learning new skills and gaining new interests.
Ecotherapy can be a good choice for anyone that suffers from mild to moderate depression. Physical exercise and spending time in nature has been shown to improve mood and lead to greater levels of general well-being. Feeling lonely and/or isolated can lead to or be a feature of depression and so joining therapy group or taking part in a local conservation or parks and woodland management scheme can be beneficial in helping a person to connect with others and maybe make friends to meet outside of the group. For those who experience mental health problems isolation and lack of understanding can be a large problem and cause withdrawal and worsening of their condition. A sense of belonging and of being included in something positive can go towards alleviating these feelings and may help confidence levels to grow and encourage a person to try other new activities and challenges.
Stress can have far reaching effects on a person and not only can cause worry and even depression but can have physical effects on the body and cause changes in behaviour. Spending time in open and natural spaces can create feelings of positivity and relaxation that can leave a person feeling refreshed and revitalized.
Other benefits of ecotherapy can including learning new skills and perhaps lead to further study that could lead to qualifications and boost employment opportunities and bring individuals a sense of achievement and help them to feel more positive about their lives.
Some examples of Ecotherapy programmes include:
- Green exercise therapy – physical exercise such as walking or sports in a green space.
- Environmental conservation – Taking part in groups of individual activities to conserve and protect the natural environment either locally or on a larger scale.
- Farming – caring for animals and crops in urban or rural farms. Can also include woodland management.
- Nature arts and crafts – arts and crafts activities that are either done in a natural environment or that use materials from nature such as wood, branches, clay, sand and stone.
- Animal assisted therapy (AAT) – A type of therapy that uses supervised contact with specially trained animals to benefit mental health and well-being. Horses and dogs are often used I animal assisted therapy.
- Wilderness therapy – a more challenging therapy that takes place in remote or very rural settings.
As a therapy technique, ecotherapy offers people the chance to develop new skills and interests and make new friends as well as improve their mental health and well-being without feeling that there is a large focus on how they are feeling or on any particular condition that they may have been diagnosed with. It may be an ideal therapy choice for people who find it difficult to talk about their feelings and difficulties and offers a distraction and escape from the stresses of everyday life.
What will actually happen at a session of ecotherapy can vary greatly depending on the approach being used and other factors such as the time available, weather, time of year or the type of work that is needed to be carried out at any given time. Green therapy sessions often involve gentle physical activities such as walking in parks and woodland with trained leaders. There may be a variety of walks organised that vary from short strolls on flat ground that are suitable for most abilities to more strenuous and lengthy hikes. Environmental conservation projects can cover a large selection of tasks depending on where in the country you live and on the time of year. Sessions are run by trained leaders who will be able to explain what needs to be done in detail and give any relevant help and safety advice, especially if unfamiliar tools are to be used. Tasks such as planting wild meadows, clearing waste ground or overgrown wild areas or creating wildlife habitats are all examples of possible conservation tasks.
Farming tasks again can vary depending on what is available in your area and may involve working with animals, growing and maintaining crops or helping with general maintenance tasks in all areas of the farm. Some farms offer taster days so that people can get a taste of what is involved before making a full commitment. In nature arts and crafts the natural environment is used either to inspire the work produced or as part of the art. Natural materials such as willow, leaves, stones and wood may be used in arts and crafts projects. Animal assisted therapy can be in a group setting or on a one to one basis and consists of supervised and guided contact with an animal. The therapy focuses on building a bond with the animal and increasing interaction with them. Animal assisted interventions (AAI) is a less focused therapy approach using animals for their therapeutic benefits and may include petting animals or feeding livestock. Wilderness therapy takes place in more remote locations and may include more challenging physical activities such as hiking, climbing and shelter building.
There are many organisations over the country offering ecotherapy sessions such as The Conservation Volunteers and Green exercise. Some you can join up yourself but for other referrals from you GP or other medical professional may be necessary. For some activities a charge may apply though financial support is sometimes available. If you do not wish to join an organised programme or there aren’t any that suit you in your area there are still many ways to benefit from ecotherapy. Activities such as bike riding, walking in nature, walking your own or a neighbour’s dog, picnics or visiting a nearby beach are all prefect for ecotherapy. There may also be conservation or environmental projects locally that are not part of a dedicated ecotherapy programme but can be just as beneficial.
Care Farming UK
Online directory of local care farms.
The Conservation Volunteers (TCV)
Tel: 01302 388 883
UK conservation projects and Green Gyms.
UK volunteering opportunities, including environment and conservation options.
Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens
0117 923 1800
Information and directory of city farms that offer therapeutic gardening and farming activities.
Research into nature and health from the University of Essex.
0844 800 1895
Lists walks and open gardens, parks and estates that can be visited.
0118 988 5688
Charity that runs gardening projects for people with mental health problems.
Worldwide workers on organic farms (WWOOF)
Membership charity that teaches people about organic farming and sustainable living through volunteering opportunities.
© 2014 Claire