More and more of us are realising the benefits of ecotherapy: walking in woodlands, across heaths, along coastal paths and through other natural environments.
Take the Woodlands for Health project, in Co Wicklow. Set up in 2012, it has offered 12 weekly walks in nature to people using Wicklow mental-health services. Led by guides from Coillte and accompanied by a community mental-health nurse, Ita Kelly, the gentle three-hour walks include a talk on the environment, environmental art and relaxation. At the end of the programme, participants share a meal to celebrate their achievements.
Last year the project was evaluated by the HSE and University College Dublin, which found that participants improved their mood by 75 per cent and sleep by 66 per cent; in addition, their thoughts of suicide declined by 82 per cent.
Many of the walkers said that they felt less agitated and anxious after the programme, and some of them cut back on medication and clinical appointments.
Many of those who took part went on to form a social club. The Well-A-Head group now meets twice a week for walking, running, kayaking and other outdoor activities.
Charlie Burke, the Coillte recreation officer behind Woodlands for Health, modelled it on a similar project in Scotland, called Branching Out. Burke had had mental-health problems, so his interest is both professional and personal.
“I’m one of the lucky people, in that I have a job, but nine out of 10 people with my diagnosis of bipolar disorder don’t have full-time employment. Having a social outlet like these walks brings structure to your day, which makes a huge difference for anyone suffering with mental-health problems.”
Burke is also involved with the See Change Green Ribbon campaign, which organises Let's Walk and Talk events for members of the Irish Farmers' Association (greenribbon.ie).
“We held walks in five forest park and recreation sites in May 2015, with up to 500 people partaking. The suicide rate for farmers is very high. Many farmers live and work alone, so coming to an organised walk is of huge benefit to them.”
Burke spoke about the woodlands project at a Mental Health Ireland conference and exhibited the project for the College of Psychiatrists of Ireland. Word is spreading. “It’s a local success story of a partnership between the HSE, Mental Health Ireland, Wicklow mental-health services and Coillte. I’d hope to see it developed further, but it depends on resources.”
Schemes such as Woodlands for Health are part of a wider recognition of the health benefits of being outdoors in natural environments. Terms such as “the green gym” and “the blue gym” are now used to promote walking in the hills and beside the sea.
Some schools give children “green passports”, to record their outdoor activities, and some doctors are writing “green prescriptions”, recommending that their patients join walking groups for the benefit of their mental and physical health.
Last June Shirley Gleeson set up the DLR Nature for Health group in south Dublin. (naturehealthandwellbeing.ie). She is a social worker with training in ecotherapy and forest therapy, which bring extra dimensions to walking in nature, such as sensory connection – which might be listening to birdsong, or feeling and smelling plants – and meditative walking.
“The catchphrase is to get out of your head and into your body,” says Gleeson, whose group has had a good uptake for its free ecotherapy walks in south Co Dublin and east Co Wicklow. “People say that the walks have encouraged them to have a deeper experience of nature and realise how important contact with nature is for their health and wellbeing.”
This month the group will start a green-prescription initiative with GPs in the area. “We will have one session a week over eight weeks for those suffering with stress, anxiety and depression. They will include mindful activities outdoors with expressive arts,” she says.
Diarmuid McAree is a founder member of DLR Nature for Health. As a director of the broadleaf charity Crann he is particularly keen to promote the recreational value of forests. “I bring people on forest walks and get them to appreciate the sights, sounds and smells of the forest. It’s about going back to the basics of nature and the beauty and mystique of the forest,” says McAree. He also suggests that ecotherapy and ecotourism can bring economic benefits to communities, through the creation of more forest trails and guided walks.
David Staunton, a counselling psychotherapist (walkinniu.ie), takes things a step further by offering counselling and psychotherapy outdoors. "Ecotherapy is based on the assumption that as humans we have an innate instinct to connect emotionally with nature. Everyone has walked and talked in a park, and this helps to democratise and demystify people's experience of therapy," says Staunton.
He believes that we become more ourselves outdoors in nature, which helps to increase our resilience and reconnect with feelings of peace and wellness. “Simple everyday natural phenomena, such as a falling leaf, a branch blowing in the wind or a blue sky, can inspire, encourage, hold and support people as they work through particular issues.”
Staunton also works with groups to develop green spaces in urban settings. “If we notice and encourage nature, if we rewild tracts of our countryside, towns and cities, we benefit from the mindful healing that these healthier, liveable spaces and places offer us,” he says.
Charlie Burke says that walking in natural environments is not the same as walking in built-up ones. “Walking in so-called grey environments doesn’t offer you the same escape. When you are out among trees, listening to birds or by the sea, you can escape. The fact that this kind of green or blue exercise is available in most parts of Ireland is a major plus for us all.”
Before you set off: Where to find out more
Wicklow Woodlands for Health offers weekly walks over 12 weeks for users of Wicklow mental-health services. It is managed by Charlie Burke, one of Coillte’s recreation officers: firstname.lastname@example.org.
DLR Nature for Health organises outdoor walks for groups in the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown area of Dublin. From this month it will operate a “green prescription” programme with GPs in south Co Dublin and east Co Wicklow; you’ll find more at naturehealthandwellbeing.ie.
Ecopsychologist David Staunton offers counselling and psychotherapy to clients in outdoor settings. He will also host a fortnightly winter walk and talk in Dublin city parks, on the second and fourth Sunday of each month, until March 13th; walkinniu.ie.
For example of ecotherapy projects in the UK, try mind.org.uk/ecotherapy . You can also read a lot more about healthcare in the outdoors on the website of the Outdoor Recreation Network, at ornjournals.org.uk/stories/volume/25.