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Eco therapy and our mental health
 

It's Mental Health Awareness Week, with a focus on nature - Shaun Lambert explores why we need to be paying attention 


Nature1


This week is National Mental Health Awareness Week (MHAW). This year’s theme is how nature can improve and support our mental health and wellbeing. I know for me during the lockdowns we have all been through that going out for a walk with the dog helped me find calm states of mind. Nature as creation can also be a place of spiritual awakening. I found time spent in the Swiss mountains, in that far away world of pre-lockdown, which seems such an incredible privilege now, filled me with awe and wonder at creation and gave me a sense of God’s presence as Creator. But as the father of two students the mental health and wellbeing of young people has been especially on my mind. An article on this month’s Therapy Today suggests that children and young people may have been most affected by Covid-19 and lockdown especially around their mental health.[1]
 
The article lists disruption to schooling, friendships, sleep, normal sources of support, and ability to concentrate as some of the consistent findings that young people reported as affecting their mental health.[2] A major worry from those working with young people was that the impact on this generation, which has been called ‘Generation Covid-19’ by the Health Foundation, could be lifelong.[3] Self-harming and suicidal thoughts are showing ‘alarming increases.’[4] The article also highlights that although demand for youth services are up, research from the charity UK Youth which surveyed 1,759 youth services revealed that ‘83 per cent reported that their level of funding had decreased and 64 per cent said they were at risk of closure in the next 12 months.’[5]
 
Part of the net of support that can be offered at a time of scarce resources are the parks, lakes, ponds, and other green and blue spaces around us. One of the problems with the fragmentation of natural habitat that has impacted our wildlife, is that it has also made accessibility difficult for some.

It has been suggested that our alienation from the natural world around us contributes more widely and deeply to our lack of wellbeing. The late Howard Clinebell, pioneer of pastoral counselling, calls this ‘ecoalienation’. In a book called Ecotherapy he argues that ecoalienation happens to all human beings when we lose our connectedness with nature.[6]

This is an idea which has theological merit and deserves further exploration from a Christian perspective. This ecoalienation often goes unrecognised without the corresponding experience of ecobonding, like mine on the mountains, or walking in woodland with the dog. Children and young people need repeated opportunities to enjoy the natural world, not just occasional forays if they are to bond with nature and loosen the grip of the virtual world on their attentional capacities.
 
If we step back even further and look more widely at the connectedness we need and the disconnection we experience with nature, it is not just our own physical, spiritual and emotional health that is at stake, though. Howard Clinebell argues that ‘the most serious, most dangerous health challenge all of us in the human family face is to reverse the planet’s continuing ecological deterioration.’[7] I think many of us are aware in our own conscious experience of the world around us that something is wrong, even if it is just changes in our national obsession – the weather.
 
Stanley Grenz points out in his book Theology For the Community of God that part of God’s plan for us as the community of God’s people is to live in harmony with all of creation.[8] Another important insight he outlines is that sin never just affects us alone; sin is our failure to live in community with God, with each other, and with the natural environment.

What we also rediscover in our engagement with the natural world is our own embodiment; we come to our senses. Mindfulness teaches us not just to walk from A to B mindlessly. Not just to walk to get fit, but to walk in our experiential self, our body, our senses as streams of awareness, breathing in the beauty around us. As we do this we come out of our heads, we come out of mental time travel where our minds wander to the past we cannot change and the future we cannot control. Research says that a wandering mind, a mind that is involved in mental time travel in this way is an unhappy mind.
 
Although it is good news that the natural world is good for our wellbeing, it is important to also not just see nature in utilitarian terms. The created world should be recognised to have its own intrinsic value. It is interesting that research also shows that looking after the green spaces near us can also be good for our mental health, as can bringing nature into our houses in the form of plants.[9]
 
I began with talking about how children and young people are on my heart in terms of their mental health and wellbeing. I also know that during this pandemic many young people have asked spiritual questions. Howard Clinebell poignantly and starkly says, ‘our children will ask the world of us’.[10]  Let’s begin by working to improve their mental health and wellbeing and the support they need, as well as their access to our green and blue spaces, as well as the spacious realm of the kingdom of God, which is as Hans Kung put it, ‘creation healed.’

Image | Robert Bye | Unsplash


Shaun Lambert is a Baptist minister, author, and psychotherapist living on community with Scargill Movement, currently exploring mindful community and mindful church

 
Notes:

[1] Therapy Today May 2021 32, no. 4, “Generation Covid-19”:18.
[2] Therapy Today, 18-19.
[3] Therapy Today, 18-19.
[4] Therapy Today, 19.
[5] Therapy Today, 19.
[6] Howard Clinebell, Ecotherapy: healing ourselves, healing the earth (London: The Haworth Press, 1996) p.26.
[7] Ibid., p.1.
[8] Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1994).
[9] See this lovely little video from Mental Health Foundation, mentalhealth.org.uk/campaigns/mental-health-awareness-week.
[10] Howard Clinebell, Ecotherapy: healing ourselves, healing the earth,  p.xi.


 


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