As director of the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory, Allen Fish teaches raptor migration study and wildlife monitoring. Ninety percent of his work is with adults, the hundreds of volunteers who count, band, and track hawks.
“Many of our volunteers hang on for five or more years. Their raptor work becomes deeply therapeutic in their urban lives,” he says. “I have heard stories of self-healing here that would make a therapist tear up: of manic depression, of abuse, of chemical dependency. The strength that these people bring to their resolve to connect with nature is utterly stirring.”
To find hope, meaning, and relief from emotional pain, our species embraces medication, meditation, merlot, and more. These methods work for a time, some longer than others, some quite well, and some to our detriment. But the restorative power of nature is there, always. Spending time in natural settings is no panacea; it’s not a total replacement for other forms of professional therapy or self-healing, but it can be a powerful tool in maintaining or improving mental health.
“There is growing . . . empirical evidence to show that exposure to nature brings substantial mental health benefits,” according to “Green Exercise and Green Care,” a 2009 report by the Centre for Environment and Society at the University of Essex in England. Researchers examined people who took part in two walks, one in a country park around woodlands, grasslands, and lakes, and one in an indoor shopping center. “Improvements in self-esteem and mood were significantly greater following the green outdoor walk in comparison to the equivalent indoor walk, especially for feelings of anger, depression, and tension. After the green outdoor walk, 92 percent of participants felt less depressed, 86 percent less tense, 81 percent less angry, 80 percent less fatigued, 79 percent less confused, and 56 percent more vigorous.” Meanwhile, “depression increased for 22 percent of people and 33 percent expressed no change in their level of depression following the indoor shopping center walk.” Benefits to mood can be attributed to exercise, which generally helps, but also to vitamin N: nature.
How much nature is enough to make a difference in mental health? One study suggests that the benefits are felt almost immediately. Recent results published by Jules Pretty and Jo Barton in the journal Environmental Science and Technology reveal that mood and self-esteem improved after a five-minute dose. Blue-green exercise is even better; a walk in a natural area adjacent to water offered people the most improvement. People of all ages and social backgrounds benefited, but the greatest health changes occurred in the young and the mentally ill.
Professionals who use nature therapy in their practices generally report good results. Patricia Hansen Hasbach, a psychologist in private practice who teaches ecotherapy at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, explains how she uses nature as metaphor, to open patients up, and also as direct treatment. She asks her patients about their relationship to nature and how much time they spend outside. “Some will tell me, ‘I haven’t done it in years,’ ” she says. She asks them if as a child they had a special place in nature. “And that is an icebreaker. It often gives me more information than when they tell me about their families.”
Hasbach told the story of a 17-year-old patient: “This boy was doing serious self-damaging things. The parents were in the midst of a divorce and weren’t really addressing him directly. He had been to two other therapists. But he and I made a connection when he started telling me about fishing. I said, ‘I’m going to give you homework. I want you to go fishing three times this week.’ He came back the next week and said, ‘Sometimes I go to the ponds and I just sit there.’ He began telling me about the turtles—and how they draw into their shell. In our third session, he trusted me enough to say, ‘I thought of killing myself.’ ” Hasbach prescribed short-term medication, and more time outdoors. “I brought in his dad, with whom he was living, to reconnect that bond. This week they are in Alaska fishing together.
“Ecopsychology—ecotherapy—is taking us to the next round: the context in which we live our lives, the natural world.”
Richard Louv is a journalist and author of eight books, including the international bestseller Last Child in the Woods. He also serves as cochair of Canada’s national Children and Nature Alliance. Excerpted from The Nature Principle by Richard Louv (© 2011). Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.www.workman.com/Algonquin
Have something to say? Send a letter to firstname.lastname@example.org. This article first appeared in the November-December 2011 issue of Utne Reader.