Nature Therapy Interventions to Promote Wellness in Community Mental Health

As we enter into what will be for many of us our sixth month (sixth!) of staying at home and social distancing, we might notice that our clients are expressing more feelings of isolation, hopelessness, or anxiety. Those of us in community mental health might be looking for creative interventions that require little to no extra resources that many of us and our clients lack in community settings. Ecotherapy, or nature therapy, is one such type of therapy from which we can borrow interventions that are inexpensive and can further engage clients in the therapeutic process.

Theodore Roszak, the founder of ecopsychology, stated that the goal of ecopsychology is to heal relationships between people by healing the fundamental connection between the individual and the natural environment.

Therapists who are seeing clients in an office or through teletherapy can use these interventions as well, but therapists who see clients in the community or in clients’ homes have the unique advantage of being able to interact with the client in their own environment. This article also includes resources and ideas for clients who are homebound and/or lack access to green spaces.

As a provisionally licensed counselor, I practice from a systemic and holistic model meaning I try to look at the “whole picture” of the client when it comes to promoting wellness. For this article, I will be using the 7 major areas of wellness to organize these ecotherapy interventions.

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Keep reading for ideas on how to incorporate ecotherapy into your home-based practice. If you practice outside or in a public space, remember to carefully check the client’s comfort levels and take precautions to ensure confidentiality.

Spiritual Health 

  • Discuss or journal about the term “synergy” and its theological roots suggesting that the human and divine are connected with modern ecopsychologists relating that the needs of the planet are the needs of the person and vise versa
  • Practice guided meditation in nature
  • Discuss option of client praying in nature
  • Discuss religious or spiritual texts on the environment

Physical Health 

  • Take a walk in nature during session
  • Come up with a walking path together that client can use without therapist (questions to ask: is the walking path well lit? Does it have any obstructions that cause potential harm to a client with a disability that hinders mobility?)
  • If certified, practice yoga poses with client such as mountain or tree and review emotions that might be related to embodying the natural world (i.e. “grounded”, “strong”, “comforted”, etc).

Social Health             

Intellectual Health 

  • Encourage client to teach you about generational changes related to the natural environment (I.e. “how has the landscape changed since growing up here?”)
  • Encourage client to sign up (virtually or in person) for class related to interest in nature or wilderness skill (gardening, bird watching, etc)
  • Make up a game together to play in the backyard to meet therapeutic goals (model sharing a football, teach social distancing with hula hoops to prepare families for school in the Fall, etc)
  • Research how to care for plant with family, discuss similarities to caring for your own health or the health of a dependent
  • Empower client to complete research themselves on caring for garden or plants
  • Make a tree of life, a classic narrative therapy technique

Financial Health 

  • Make plans with client for an herb garden or a vegetable garden to save money at the grocery store
  • Share with your clients that they can use SNAP benefits to purchase seeds
  • Discuss camping as an affordable vacation option and possibly add to a self care plan
  • If you work with low-income families who are unable to travel out of the city due to financial constraints or COVID-19, check out these free virtual summer camps where children can engage with nature virtually
  • Check out free admission to outdoor spaces in urban areas; in my city, New Orleans SNAP recipients get free admission to the zoo and aquarium the New Orleans public libraries also have tickets you can check out for free with a library card!

Environmental Health 

  • Discuss how nature can be an indicator of environmental health and complete a checklist in the house for environmental health and safety (Are their flies around houseplants? Is there still water in the house that can be used as a breeding ground for mosquitoes? Does the housing provide a safe separation from nature I.e. are there plants growing in from outside or plants growing where they shouldn’t be, animals getting into the home, holes in the floor etc?)
  • Use psychoeducation techniques to discuss how indoor plants can improve one’s mood and environmental satisfaction
  • Make a homemade bird feeder with free items from around the house and the yard to bring wildlife into client’s environment; bonus points if it can be part of a self care plan or as an activity of service towards the environment families can do together (there is plenty of research that suggests doing acts of service for the environment improves our mental health)

Emotional Health 

  • Acknowledge grief related to environmental loss (i.e. loss of coastal area where client grew up, loss and significance of favorite tree, loss of home and environment due to natural or man made disaster)
  • Make a nature mood board together or hang up pictures of favorite natural environments
  • Use psychoeducation techniques to discuss how exposure to nature can alleviate stress
  • Use a nature-themed grounding activity to address anxiety (name 3 things you can touch outside, 3 things you can smell, etc)
  • Use natural resources, such as sticks, stones, and leaves, as a medium for expressive arts therapy; check out the work of Andy Goldsworthy for inspiration.
  • If your clients lack access to green spaces or are homebound, they can still experience natural environments virtually through videos or nature sound playlists. You can even tour many national parks virtually.

Conservationist and activist Jane Goodall summarized how just being and existing in nature can fill her spiritual needs:

“It’s being out in nature, and it doesn’t have to be the forest with chimpanzees, although that’s my very most favorite. But somewhere out in nature, preferably alone with a very close friend and just feeling a part of it… there are some places in the forest when the trees kind of arch overhead and it reminds me of some of those great cathedrals where there’s such a, you know, whether you’re religious or not, the atmosphere — because so many hundreds and thousands of people have been in there and they’ve been praying and they’ve been in contact with what I call a great spiritual power. And that’s the same for me in the forest.” – Jane Goodall

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