Clinical Corner - What is Ecotherapy?

A Method of Healing; an Antidote for Modern Life
Andrea Bell, LCSW

Brown skies.  Can't see downtown LA, or the majestic mountains that rise behind it.  (Did you know we have mountains there?) Grey pavement, everywhere!  Working all day in sealed high-rises, disconnected from the air and the earth.  Polluted rivers, poisoned streams.  Bacteria at the beach!  Global warming, empty fisheries, drilling in the Alaskan Reserve.

Long commutes, endless traffic jams, seas of red brake lights.  Tempers rising, burning (and breathing!) gasoline that everyone knows to be in increasingly short supply—and oh, so expensive.  Diesel school buses, increasing asthma and other health problems in children.  Fast food, food from wrappers, from plastic, food on the go.  Food filled with sugar, chemicals, preservatives, harmful oils.

Aaaaahhhh!!!

This is the world we live in today.  It's so commonplace for us, we rarely realize how stressful it is to just exist in it.  Nor do we stop to think for more than a few moments about what we're passing onto our children.  It hurts too much.

Living so far removed from the natural beauty and harmony in which our race evolved is a significant contributor to disorders such as anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and other problems, in both adults and children.  It contributes to general feelings of rage, powerlessness, and hopelessness.

Such complex issues have no easy solutions.  However, there is a very powerful method of healing, which attacks the problems and anxieties at their core, while giving the next generation the tools to continue the work.  Ecotherapy seeks to heal people's relationships with Nature.  It uses people to heal Nature and uses Nature to heal people, at the same time.  It beautifies local communities, instills hope, and brings empowerment to those who may have previously felt they had nothing to contribute.

Consider the following scenarios:

  • Three young, tough gangbangers drop by their counselor's office, sneering, attitudes leaking all over the place.  They're there because they have to be.  Someone approaches them-her arms are full of a warm, loving, friendly puppy.  She hands the puppy to the leader.  The kids melt into smiles, suddenly indistinguishable from normal 14 year olds.


  • A nine year old kid feels worthless.  He's picked on in school, and home is pretty chaotic.  His grades start to drop and he becomes irritable.  He may withdraw, or maybe he'll start hanging out with those who'll easily accept him-the wrong crowd.  He's given a small corner of an urban ecoscape to restore, tend, be responsible for.  He learns he can nurture, and nourish.  His plants thrive, attract butterflies, hummingbirds, and other critters.  Peers at the program notice his work, compliment him on it.  He has a place to belong.  He starts to open up to life again.


  • A crack addict, newly sober and formerly homeless, is used to being chased-by the police, or shooed away from the "nice" neighborhood.  Her counselor puts her to work helping to restore a local wetland.  Nearby neighbors and business owners see the difference she's making, and start coming over to thank her.  She sees where urban trash ends up, and stops throwing hers on the ground.  The wetland starts to improve; birds return, along with other new signs of life in the ecosystem.  She enrolls in a local community college, in the horticulture program.


  • Four patients in a mental hospital have all been diagnosed with severe psychotic and/or depressive disorders.  One of them refuses to talk.  Their social worker brings them to the hospital's garden.  They get their hands in the soil and learn about the relationship between earth, air, water, sun, food, and their bodies.  They watch their flowers and veggies grow, and at harvest time they have a special party to eat the best food they've had in months.  They find there's something about the garden that enables them to talk, to work through and reveal more in one casual sitting than in three months of more formal inpatient therapy groups.

These are composite examples of the simplicity and power of urban ecotherapy.  In addition to catalyzing positive changes in the individual, ecotherapy heals local ecosystems (yes, we do have those, even in our urban environment!).  It also tends to build community, by providing a venue for people to come together, meet each other, and increase their investment in the neighborhood and city.

Ecotherapy is a newly emerging field, practiced by teachers, Scout leaders, clergy, psychotherapists, and others.  It's a rational, grassroots response to our irrational, globalized context.  There are currently few, if any, formal credentials required to practice it; however, success requires both sensitivity to the participant's needs and a good working knowledge of general and specific ecosystems.  It is not intended as a substitute for working through fundamental problems with a trained psychotherapist.  Ecotherapy may "break through" a person's defenses and help them become ready to work towards resolution of problematic issues.  As such, it is often essential to include a qualified psychotherapist in the ecotherapy or the client's support team.

At Dr. Duggan and Associates, part of my practice includes ecotherapy programs and activities to serve and heal our clients and the local community.  We are specifically focusing on restoration of native terrestrial and wetland ecosystems right here in the City of Long Beach!  We are in partnership with the Los Cerritos Wetlands Stewards, a non profit organization whose responsibilities include maintaining Long Beach's environmentally sensitive habitats.  We are working towards partnership with some local schools, to involve greater numbers of children in the community.  For further information, including how to participate in these programs, please contact me at our office or at 562-243-9963.

Further information on ecotherapy:

http://www.terrapsych.com/opuspax.html

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2005-11/bmj-gct112305.php

http://www.footprint-education.org/ecotherapy/index.html

http://www.cnps-yerbabuena.org/hab_gilliam_ecotherapy.html


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