The Greening of Mental Health

Psychotherapists are putting patients in touch with nature

By Kelly Maguire

July 2008

    Ever wonder about the secret of a tree? You know—that silent, knowing quality that seems to give it a life of its own? Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote, “The pine tree seems to listen, the fir tree to wait, and both without impatience: They give no thought to the little people beneath them devoured by their impatience and their curiosity.”

People, it seems, have a great deal to learn from trees, which remain firmly rooted within the earth even as their graceful branches extend eternally skyward. Ecopsychology, an emerging therapeutic discipline, seeks to reconcile the estrangement of human beings from their natural counterparts.

Mother Earth, Healer
     Less well-defined than traditional psychotherapy, some pioneering practitioners are touting the success of ecopsychology in treating people who feel burned out or inundated by life’s burdens. Philip Chard, MS, LICSW, a practicing therapist and author of The Healing Earth: Nature’s Medicine for the Troubled Soul (Cowles), encourages clients who are feeling overwhelmed to lie on the ground and look up at the sky. “It helps to make their personal challenges seem less overwhelming,” he says.

A typical session—“if there is a typical session,” says Chard—combines traditional talk therapy with guided nature interactions.

In one case, Chard instructed a patient he said was feeling “dead inside” to walk through a natural area and discover something that reminded that individual of why he came to therapy in the first place. The man found a chunk of clay—cold, hard, heavy and colorless. “He used the chunk of clay in a transformative ritual of sorts,” says Chard. “He placed the clay hunk in a small stream, soaked it with water and began to shape it with his hands into something he found desirable. He also ‘decorated’ it with small colorful pebbles, bits of flowers and pine needles.”

Chard emphasized that this sort of process, in which nature is both the setting and the facilitator of healing, can initiate an inner transformation that reshapes mental perceptions and emotional states. One Wisconsin woman in her fifties spoke of an ecotherapy session she had in which she and her therapist discussed the analogy between emotions and water. They explored the many “modes” of water—whether flowing, deep or stuck. “I learned how at times, I had emotions that were ‘stuck,’ and to accept that,” the woman, a school and family counselor who asked not to be identified, told Energy Times.

Coined by social thinker Theodore Roszak in his 1992 book Voice of the Earth (Touchstone Books), ecopsychology postulates that there is a direct correlation between the degraded condition of the planet and the uneasy state of the human psyche. In his essay, “Awakening the Ecological Unconscious,” Roszak warns that repression of the ecological unconscious is the “deepest root of collusive madness in industrial society.”

Addressing the pace and tempo of our daily life, Roszak contended “it’s almost taken for granted that we are living a kind of crazy life. All we have to do is be caught on the freeway in a traffic jam, you know, to recognize the madness in the way we’ve constructed the world around us. The amount of waste and the amount of stress and the amount of tension that we inflict upon ourselves—there’s something crazy about that.”

Short Urban History
For most of human history, people have lived close to nature by necessity. The first urban society, which developed in England, is no more than a century and a half old. Anthropologically speaking, urban culture is a very recent development—while we may look, feel and act modern, experts warn that our brains still have a lot of catching up to do.

“The fact that we’re trapped in it simply means that we’re capable of creating a culture that can rise up against us like a Frankenstein’s monster and perhaps destroy us,” Roszak says.
Jeannette Armstrong, a Northwestern Native American, says the four-syllable Okanagan word for “insanity” is a synthesis of “talking inside your head,” “scattered, having no community,” “disconnected from the land” and “cut off from your whole earth part.”

Indeed, many of us move from our temperature-controlled cars to elevators to stores and isolated offices with few windows. Disconnection is fostered through the blurring distinctions between night and day, between seasons, between temperatures. Our mechanistic world inhibits intimate contact with land and waters, starving the senses and exhausting the mind. Ecopsychology practitioners say their work meaningfully reconnects human beings to nature.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “A man is related to all nature.” He believed that the whole of nature was a metaphor for the human mind. A tree is the same, whether on a clear summer’s afternoon or on a stormy winter’s evening. The same can be said about human nature—through the constant cycle of human thought and emotion, whether stormy or gentle, who we are lies deep and knowing just below the surface.

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