When highly stressed people are asked to visualize a soothing scene, nobody imagines a freeway or shopping mall. Rather, images of wilderness, forest, seascape, and starry skies invariably emerge. (Theodore Roszak, 1996)
Given the research on the beneficial effects of exposure to nature it is unsurprising that there is now interest in what is being termed 'ecotherapy' or 'green therapy'.
One of the biggest UK studies was undertaken by the University of Essex and published by the mental health organisation Mind in their booklet Ecotherapy. This research highlights the therapeutic effects of reconnecting with nature.
This study showed that taking a walk in the country reduces depression in 71% of participants. To ensure that the effects were not simply linked to physical activity, the study had a control group, who took a walk in a shopping centre. These participants only had 45% reductions in depression scores and 22% of participants actually felt more depressed. Ecotherapy, the green agenda for mental health,is a therapy technique which uses outdoor spaces and nature to enhance people's happiness and well-being. This is the first study looking at how ‘green’ exercise specifically affects those suffering from depression. This study highlights the importance of exercise for depression. What is more interesting are the highly beneficial effects of ‘green’ exercise. A follow up study asked 108 people, with various mental health problems, about their experiences of ecotherapy. Of these 108 people, 94% said that green activities had benefited their mental health and lifted depression, and 90% said that it was the combination of exercise and greenery that had helped. These results mirror claims that we need to reconnect with nature - it is important for our well-being.
Ecotherapy is on the agenda for mental health and this study highlights the benefits. Getting outdoors may not only relieve depression but may also boost well-being.
Some of the psychological problems experienced by young people have been proposed to arise from what, American author, Richard Louv terms as the ‘nature deficit disorder’. What Louv means by this is that young people are increasingly becoming cut off from the natural world, an environment which research shows has an enormous and positive impact on well-being, and this separation has an adverse effect on their psychology.
Recently an initiative in England has been taking young people, excluded from school for bad behaviour, to the woodland areas to be involved in nature activities or what they call ‘woodland therapy’ with the aim of brining them back to nature and helping them to flourish.
The ‘woodland therapy’ teaches young people about the variety of trees and their importance for the wildlife that they support. It also teaches them skills such as how to: clear dead undergrowth; coppice overgrown trees; cut wood for gardens and how to build environmentally friendly buildings.
The therapeutic effects of this type of work are thought to impact upon the physical, mental, emotional and social development of young people.
One young lad, who was once suspended from school and used to drink heavily, said that he would never have predicted that the woodlands would have changed his life. Yet since being involved in the activities he has passed his exams, and now holds down a job. He attributes this to time spent in the woodlands.
This type of program shows how nature can foster calmness, focus and confidence in young people in a way which brings lasting change.
Mind, and other organisations, also run gardening projects to help people with mental health problems. Many of those with participate say that the combination of physical activity (digging, lifting etc) as well as being outdoors and in a green environment improves people's mood and confidence. It is also a great way to make friends and feel part of a meaningful community.
Research at the University of Essex suggests that exposure to nature can make positive contributions to health, help people recover from pre-existing illnesses or stresses, have an 'immunising' effect by protecting people from future stresses and help them to think more clearly and concentrate better. They highlight viewing nature(eg through a window on the way to work or looking at painting of nature) but not engaging with it , being in the presence of nature and active participation and involvement with nature as having an effect on a person's health and well-being.They also found that green exercise resulted in improvements in self esteem and mood measures as well as reducing blood pressure.
The term 'Green care' is defined as the use of farms as a base for promoting physical and mental health. These farms are used to provide work related or recreational activites for people with mental illnesses or addictions. For further information on green care click here.
'Ecotherapy: The green agenda for mental health', Mind, Mind week report May 2007.(www.mind.org.uk)
Pretty, J, 2004, 'How nature contributes to mental and physical health', Spirituality and Health International, 5(2), 68-78.
Pretty, J., Peacock, J., Sellens., M & Griffin, M, 2005, 'The mental and physical health outcomes of green exercise, International Journal of Environmental Health Research, in press.
Hassink, J, 2003, 'Combining agricultural production and care for persons with disabilities: a new role of agriculture and farm animals', Wageningen University, Netherlands, Braastad, 2005, Green care in agriculture: COST action proposal, Norwegian University of Life Sciences, Norway.