Ecopsychology - How Wild Nature Can Heal The Broken Spirit

by KathleenDuffy

Evidence is mounting that time spent in the natural world can help those suffering with mental health problems. Ecopsychology recognises the vital link between mind and nature.

Somewhere along the way we in the west seem to have lost our connection with the natural world. We might be old enough to remember times when, as children, we went off into the countryside and roamed all day, climbing trees and leaping over brooks before returning home, exhausted but fulfilled. Or we might merely have spent the day in the local park playing games and avoiding the park-keeper.

For many children and adults - those days of unsupervised play in nature are over.

Many of us, both adults and children, are traumatised, stressed, suffering from anxiety and depression. But some psychologists are recognising that there is a need to not only study the immediate personal causes of mental health breakdown, which is so widespread, but to see it in a global, planetary perspective.

As a result, some interesting issues about our spiritual and emotional needs relating to the natural world have been emerging. Many authorities are setting up special wilderness adventure breaks, with a view to rebuilding confidence, as well as enhancing spiritual and emotional wellbeing.

Our Need To Be Connected With Nature

It's vital for our mental health
Wilderness by Sanford Robinson Gifford (1823-1880)
Wilderness by Sanford Robinson Gifford (1823-1880)

It’s  disturbing to many people globally that the western world's financiers seems intent on destroying the planet’s wild places  in order to plunder its natural resources.  It’s a form of greed that cannot bear to see a natural ecosystem just ‘being’ and, in the eyes of the developer, doing nothing and lying idle.  Everything, unless protected by legislation, has the potential to be exploited and put to work. A very Victorian concept.

This attitude  is regarded by many as completely insane, and filters down into the interior lives of ordinary citizens, adding a background of emotional panic that goes to the heart of our fears as human beings. 

Mental health issues, for those who are already suffering,  are further burdened by this nightmare scenario   - but many ecopsychologists believe that urbanisation coupled with a detachment from the natural world can be the catalyst for mental health problems - not just an add-on factor.

The Emergence of Ecopsychology

This fascinating area of psychology wedded to an  interest in the environment  - known nowadays as ‘Ecopsychology’ - was first revealed by Robert Greenway.  As a boy in the San Francisco Bay area he was fascinated by nature.  But later he reveals:

“After the war, when my family moved to Seattle, I immersed myself even more in the lakes, mountains, and fish- and snow-cultures of the region, retreating more and more into the wilderness as the painful storms of adolescence emerged. I attribute the fact that I am alive today to the healing I received deep in the then-almost-empty mountains, especially the Olympics west of Seattle.”

At the University of Washington he worked with the legendary ecologist, W T Edmundson, cleaning up the dreadfully polluted Lake Washington in Seattle and educating the citizens on how to keep it clean.

As he himself says:  “That was my first experience of the psychological-sociological linkage with ecology. Never again could I truly separate the fields.”

With the publication of Theodore Roszak’s  book The Voice of the Earth, (1992) wide attention was drawn to the huge disparity between the psychological  and the ecological.  

As a result, this  growing, still emergent  movement has seen the term ‘Ecopsychology’ recognised by various universities who now run courses at all levels in this subject area.

How the Wilderness Heals

It doesn't have to be vast...

Ecotherapy, or wilderness therapy, has grown out of a need that is being recognised by therapists - the need for a solid connection with other individuals, but also our natural environment.  

Remember those TV programmes called Boot Camp which featured privileged American teenagers sent off into the harsh wilderness with firm (but understanding) mentors overseeing them?  The results were surprising.  The harsh terrain was challenging both emotionally and physically, but the feeling of self-worth at the end of the difficult treks was life-changing for all concerned.

There are hundreds of wilderness therapy projects in the States where rugged wilderness is abundant and protected.  

However, as Hetti Dysch has pointed out in an article in Positive News (Spring 2012),  we don't need the American wilderness to experience transformation.  We may not be in reach of those  extensive mountain ranges or vast forests, but the nature that is within our reach can be a life-saver. (NB: In Scotland, where there are plenty of really wild spaces, a project has been set up to encourage better mental health through wilderness activities.)

But for those living in the inner cities, and in a dark place personally,  quite often these wild places might as well be on the moon. Thankfully,there are a number of charities here in the UK which take wilderness therapy very seriously and offer groundbreaking experiences for those who are ready for it.

Below I give a short description of two such wilderness therapy projects.


Ray Mears - Survival Expert

Check the region if buying
The Wild West with Ray Mears

Embercombe - Overlooking Dartmoor National Park

It has specially-designed yurt with wheelchair access...


Embercombe is a social enterprise in Devon which provides wilderness therapy for ex-soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, children in care and private individuals. It is a charity which, in their own words was :

' established to champion a way of living that celebrates the opportunities inherent in this challenging time and that inspires people to contribute  energetically towards the emergence of a socially just, environmentally sustainable and spiritually fulfilling human presence on earth.'

The activities are amazingly varied and involve sustainable living projects and sailing activities.  You can find out more about this wonderful place here.

A Short Video about Embercombe

Write to Freedom - The Wilderness and Writing Weekend

A rite of passage for teenage boys

The author, Caspar Walsh, writing in Positive News (Winter 2011) describes how during his teenage years he felt as though 'something was missing'. In and out of prison, addicted to alcohol and drugs, it wasn't until the age of 33 that Caspar found what he had been looking for - on a difficult and intensely challenging personal development programme in Sussex  he finally felt he had become an adult.

Caspar Walsh decided to set up a similar programme for teenage boys who were prison inmates. His project, Write to Freedom builds on Caspar's experience of his own rehabilitation.  The boys are released for the weekend on special license and stay on Dartmoor where they learn about this beautiful, wild environment, write about their past experiences and prepare for a new beginning. It is challenging, both for the mentors and the boys. 

Making fires, running around in the landscape, cooking good food, talking, writing down their lives - all these new experiences have a profound effect on the young participants and give them tools to navigate through life.  It's wilderness therapy in action.


Wilderness Therapy Responds to a Deep Human Need

Social Services and the prison authorities, as well as parents and teachers, are recommending wilderness therapy more and more for those in their care.  Television programmes have opened up the idea to a wide audience and it is recognised that being in the landscape revives our spirits and challenges our limited perceptions of ourselves.  Learning to live together with others in the natural environment builds confidence and trust.

What is more, these projects are not only supported by qualified psychotherapists who understand Ecopsychology, but they also believe in the  underlying ideal,  which is one of sustainability and love for the planet.

In this way, participants gain not only personal therapeutic experience, but learn to care and respect the nature that sustains us.  

That's got to be a very good thing for all of us.


'The Healing Touch of the Wild' by Hetti Dysch in Positive News (Spring 2012)

'Write to Freedom' by Casper Walsh in Positive News (Winter 2011)

'The Value of Rites of Passage' by Caspar Walsh (ibid)


Books by Caspar Walsh

Founder of 'Write to Freedom'
Updated: 03/21/2014, KathleenDuffy
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KathleenDuffy on 08/30/2016

Thank you so much for your lovely comments. I am sorry it has taken me so long to reply. I am no longer on the internet at home and have to pop in to the library occasionally to catch up. Once again, many thanks.

MBC on 05/12/2016

Great article. I majored in Psychology but in my time there was no term ecopsychology. But I sure apply the principals. I am a birder which takes me out in nature on a regular basis connecting to God's creatures. Well done.

KathleenDuffy on 08/15/2015

frankbeswick - So kind of you to comment again on this article. Thank you Frank.

KathleenDuffy on 08/15/2015

blackspanielgallery - Thank you for you comment. Yes, there is something about solitude that seems to be a basic human need.

frankbeswick on 08/12/2015

Coming back to this exquisite article, I have realized that the point that you are making is psychology but more than that. There are profound issues of philosophy and natural theology that need to be explored. You have touched upon what may be one of the central issues of human life.

blackspanielgallery on 08/12/2015

Very interesting. I find a certain peace when going to the mountains.

KathleenDuffy on 03/25/2014

Derdriu - Your balcony sounds like a little nature reserve! It is wonderful how birds, insects, squirrels, etc. can congregate in such a small space. I only have the tiniest balcony but I have bulbs on there, a bird feeder and a wisteria plant climbing up the wall. It's nice to sit on the sofa and watch it all going on! Occasionally squirrels manage to run around the roof and steal nuts from the birds!

DerdriuMarriner on 03/25/2014

Kathleen, Me, too, I value the nature which can be welcomed even onto a small balcony. I have fond memories of a balcony which ran along one entire side and which was visited by friendly squirrels for the chest of black walnuts there just for them near a small tree in a container, also there just for them. My container garden bloomed from early spring to early winter. Every spring finches built nests on a holiday wreath, left to hang after the holidays outside the patio door just for them.

KathleenDuffy on 03/25/2014

WriterArtist - you are so right. Thank you for reading my article! :)

WriterArtist on 03/25/2014

Agree with you. I can't stress the need to connect with the Nature - it is spiritual and healing.

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