Ecotherapy or ecopsychology or ‘applied ecopsychology’ can take many diverse forms. Practitioners don’t necessarily refer to themselves in the same way – hence the use of different words. For example, some might also talk of ‘nature-based work’ or wilderness work, explored below. We’ll use the term ecotherapy on this page, whilst acknowledging that it’s just one word used to describe this work.
Psychotherapy has traditionally located human suffering in broken relationships with other humans. Ecotherapy argues that our suffering arises out of broken relationships with what we call the natural world, our disconnection from the other-than-human and more-than-human being a cause of suffering. In turn, this disconnection creates further suffering, in that humans habitually live and work in a way which is destructive to the other-than-human world, in the age which geologists have called the ‘anthropocentric age’.
Ecotherapy has become a word that is used to describe the positive affects that contact with nature can have on mental health. The MIND report on Ecotherapy did a lot to promote evidence for the benefits and has led to the creation of an ecotherapist post working in the National Health Service to promote the therapeutic benefits of contact with nature in the form of gardening and green exercise.
There are some in the movement who argue that this definition of ecotherapy doesn’t meaningfully touch upon the much deeper issues of consciousness and psychology which are at the heart of our destructive relationship with the natural world. Drawing from the ideas of deep ecology, which accord the more-than-human world a consciousness independent of the humans who come into contact with it, some ecotherapists argue that a process of much deeper, sustained change needs to happen.
Ecotherapy for these practitioners is much more about conscious practices that promote reciprocity with the natural world, seeking to heal both ourselves and the natural world in the process, this is essential they would argue, if we are to avert both environmental and human breakdown and catastrophe.
A useful starting point is the book by Linda Buzzell and Craig Chalquist ‘Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind’ (2009, Sierra Club Books). It outlines many kinds of ecotherapy, including horticultural therapy, “green” exercise, animal-assisted therapy, wilderness therapy, natural lifestyle therapy, eco-dreamwork, community ecotherapy, dealing with eco-anxiety and eco-grief and much more.
Ecopsychology has found a form of practice in wild places, sometimes referred to as ‘wilderness work’. Some practitioners have arrived at the point of practising ecotherapy through outdoor education work and mountaineering. The term has been widely and loosely applied. Some approaches seek to provide modalities of psychotherapy, for example, but practised outside in wilder places, whilst others are based on traditional indigenous processes, such as rites of passage work.
These draw on some ancient practices, but can sometimes tend more towards a form of cultural consumerism where different techniques are ‘borrowed’ from a diversity of cultures.
In wilderness work a fundamental distinction lies between approaches that seek to use the context of wilderness for the psychological benefit of humans alone, and those that do this while also implying a reciprocal relationship between humans and the rest of nature which leads to living more sustainably. Approaches that include this reciprocity are sometimes called ecotherapy.
Another important and more physically accessible aspect of working outdoors is horticultural therapy, gardening and spending time in gardens, parks and other ‘green spaces’. Wilderness work, working with ecopsychology in green spaces and the healing benefits of direct experiences of more-than-human nature represent an important part of the field of ecopsychology.