Distress and Wellness Header Photo of Sun Peeking Through CloudsMental Health

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Lecture/Discussion Topics

Ecopsychological Perspectives on Mental Health

Traditionally, mental health has been understood as a phenomenon within an individual, or within the individual in a social context. Ecopsychologically minded clinicians have expanded the discussion of mental health to include humans’ ecological context and the relationship between the individual and nonhuman nature (e.g., White & Heerwagen, 1998). A fundamental premise of ecopsychology is that living disconnected from our natural context (as we do in urban-industrial cultures) contributes to psychological distress such as depression and anxiety, and possibly to disorders such as schizophrenia. See Buzzell & Chalquist’s (2009) edited volume, Ecotherapy: Healing with nature in mind for essays on therapeutic approaches based on theoretical ecopsychology. See the Ecopsychology page of this site for more on this topic.

Mental Health Hazards of Modern Living

Since the 1970s, researchers have studied the link between environmental stressors and mental health (e.g., Shurley, 1979; Williams, Leyman, Karp, & Wilson, 1973). For decades, urban stressors such as air pollution, noise, crowding, and light pollution have been implicated as contributors to psychological distress such as depression and anxiety (e.g., Bedrosian & Nelson, 2013; Downey & Van Willigen, 2005; Freeman, 1988; Lundberg, 1996). More recently, researchers have identified links between mental distress and other aspects of modern living, including inactivity (Ratey, 2013),diets of industrially produced and processed foods (e.g., Jacka, et al., 2010), sleep disruption due to artificial light and industrial noise (e.g.,Bedrosian & Nelson, 2013; Stansfield, Clark, & Crombie, 2012), and electronic preoccupations (e.g., Rosen, et al., 2014). In other words, it is becoming increasingly clear that aspects of the modern lifestyle that are bad for the planet are also bad for us. One explanation for why modern living may impair optimal mental health and functioning is the idea of “evolutionary mismatch,” i.e., between our physiology and the industrialized lifestyle (Gluckman & Hanson, 2008). Humans evolved in a pre-industrial wild nature context that evolutionary biologists and psychologists call the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA; Gangestad & Simpson, 2007). This refers not a specific time or place, but to a set of conditions to which humans are best adapted. Modern society differs in significant ways from the EEA. It is possible to make lifestyle changes in a sustainable direction that are good for the planet and also good for us (e.g., walk more and drive less, eat organic food that was sustainably produced); however, there are some aspects of our ecologically compromised situation that are here to stay, and will likely prove detrimental to mental wellbeing. These include toxic pollution and climate change (Clayton, Manning, & Hodge, 2014; Scott, Amel, Koger, & Manning, 2016).

Mental Health Benefits of Natural Settings

In their 1989 book, The experience of nature: A psychological perspective, environmental psychologists Rachel and Steven Kaplan reviewed two decades of research conducted by themselves, their environmental psychology colleagues, landscape architects, and others on how people perceive, and are affected by, the natural environment. Inspired by their decade-long observation of the psychological benefits experienced by teenage and adult participants in a wilderness outdoor challenge program, they endeavored to identify what characteristics are common to “restorative” environments, i.e., environments that relieve mental fatigue and make people feel a sense of peace and renewal. In the decades since, researchers have provided empirical evidence that spending even 20 minutes in a natural setting can indeed refresh attentional capacity (e.g., Berman, Jonides, & Kaplan, 2008) and relieve stress and negative affect (e.g Hartig, Evans, Jamner, Davis, & Gärling, 2003; Ulrich, et al., 1991; van den Berg & Custers, 2011). People tend to perceive wilder, visually complex spaces, such as woodlands, as more restorative than tended spaces, such as urban parks and playing fields (Korpela, 2013; Tyrväinen, et al., 2014; White, Pahl, Ashbulby, Herbert, & Depledge, 2013), Research on clinical populations demonstrates that experiences in nature not only improve mood in general, but alleviate symptoms of depression (Berman, et al., 2012; Bratman, Hamilton, Hahn, Daily, & Gross, 2015). Similarly, they not only restore depleted attention in normally functioning individuals, but may also be as therapuetic as medications for children struggling with attentional disorders (Faber Taylor & Kuo, 2009; van den Berg & van den Berg, 2011). Some clinicians have long recognized the therapuetic benefits of contact with nature and have implemented “eco-therapies” to help their clients (see next topic).

Restorative Environments

Stephen Kaplan (1995) Identified four elements of “restorative environments:”

  • “Being away” from the demands of regular life;
  • “Soft fascination” with sensory dimensions of the setting that are inherently appealing;
  • “Extent” or “scope” that gives a sense of vastness or connection;
  • “Compatibility” with the individual’s activity preferences.

Ask students to consider environments that they find restorative, and discuss the ways in which those settings conform – or not – to Kaplan’s theory.

Ecotherapies and Wilderness Therapy

Contact with nature is therapeutic for a variety of mental health issues (Annerstedt & Währborg, 2011). For example, horticulture therapy involves gardening to aid people with depression and other illnesses (Gonzalez, et al., 2010; Hartig & Cooper Marcus, 2006; Messer Diehl, 2009) Animal-assisted therapy (e.g., with dogs or horses) is used to remedy behavioral disorders in children (Katcher & Wilkins, 1998) and dementia in aging adults (Nordgren & Engström, 2014). An umbrella term to describe all nature-assisted therapies is ecotherapy (Buzzell & Chalquist, 2009; Chalquist, 2009). This label also encompasses the emerging practice of helping people deal with psychological distress directly related to the ecological crisis, such as worry and fear about climate change. “Wilderness therapy” is a term used to describe a variety of programs, some conducted by mental health professionals, some not. Some wilderness therapy programs (also known by the label “outdoor behavioral health”) use wilderness settings basically as a soothing backdrop for traditional cognitive-behavioral techniques (e.g., DeAngelis, 2013) while others integrate wilderness skills and interaction as a part of the therapy itself. Wilderness therapy programs commonly involve intense wilderness experiences lasting a month or longer. Empirical research on outcomes is limited, but some studies report data on the rates of successful outcomes and explore aspect of wilderness therapy leads to positive outcomes (Russell, 2012; WIlson & Lipsey, 2000). The primary client population for most wilderness therapy programs is at-risk adolescents (e.g., Banderoff & Scherer, 1994; Romi & Kohan, 2004). A second population is women, particularly those who have suffered abuse (Cole, Erdman, & Rothblum, 1994; McBride & Korell, 2005). Wilderness experience can be significant for women in ways it is less so for men because wilderness living represents a greater departure from the feminine gender role as it is socially constructed in our society than from the masculine gender role (Hennigan, 2010; Scott, 2010). In particular, women experience their bodies differently. “Masculine” bodies are well-suited for the rigors of wilderness adventure, but “feminine” bodies are supposed to be delicate, not-too-muscular, sweet-smelling, groomed, and visually appealing. Wilderness settings and outdoor challenges get women away from mirrors and billboards, requiring them to occupy their bodies instead of scrutinize them. Women report that these experiences inspire feelings of competence, confidence, and strength in contrast to the feelings of objectification and self-consciousness about appearance that pervade their lives in contemporary urban culture (Arnold, 1994; West-Smith, 2000; Whittington, 2006). Any discussion of wilderness therapy should include the subject of ethics and standards of care. In past decades, there was very little oversight of wilderness therapy programs, as illustrated by John Krakauer’s (1995) riveting and tragic account, “Loving them to Death” in Outside Magazine. Since that time, the Outdoor Behavioral Health Industry Council was formed and now offers accreditation and acts as a clearinghouse for outcomes research.

Mental Health Benefits of Companion Animals

Students may be interested in research on the mental health benefits of companion animals. For example, Judith Siegel (1990, 1993; Siegel, Angulo, Detels, Welsch, & Mullen, 1999) has studied the beneficial role of companion animals in coping with stress and illness. (See Virué s-Ortega & Buela-Casal, 2006, for a review of literature on how and why interaction with nonhuman animals may have positive physiological effects on humans; see Parslow, Jorm, Christensen, Rodgers, & Jacomb, 2005, for a study on negative psychological health associated with pet ownership in older adults.) Aaron Katcher (2002; Katcher & Wilkins, 1998) has studied animal-assisted therapy in the treatment of children with developmental disorders, autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, conduct-disorder, and oppositional-defiant disorder. Animals included birds, rabbits, rodents, reptiles, ferrets, and small farm animals. Katcher suggests that observed increases in self-image, social competence, and cooperation, and decreases in aggression, result from a ” liminal” state induced by interaction with animals. In other articles, Katcher (e. g., 2000; Beck & Katcher, 2003) discusses human-animal interaction more broadly and suggests that the effects of human-animal interaction will be best understood when researchers move beyond a medical model in the therapeutic context and consider human-animal interaction as one example of the broader biophilic benefits of humans’ interaction with various forms of nonhuman nature such as plants, gardens, and wilderness. Note: Beck and Katcher (2003) appears in a special issue of American Behavioral Scientist featuring articles about human-animal interaction in illness prevention and therapy.

Positive Psychology And Sustainability

Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (e. g., 2000) have been the leaders of a ” positive psychology” movement that redirects the focus away from what factors cause distress and disorders and toward factors that lead to life satisfaction, happiness, and well-being. As Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi describe,

If psychologists wish to improve the human condition, it is not enough to help those who suffer. The majority of “ normal” people also need examples and advice to reach a richer and more fulfilling existence. This is why early investigators [including William James, Carl Jung, Gordon Allport, and Abraham Maslow] were interested in exploring spiritual ecstasy, play, creativity, and peak experiences.

As described on the History page of this site, both Carl Jung and William James wrote about the importance of a nature connection for human wellness.Eleanora Gullone’s (2000) article in the first edition of the Journal of Happiness Studies focused on the biophilia hypothesis and its relation to increasing mental health. In the second half of this article Gullone reviews research comparing mental health outcomes in industrialized and developing worlds that suggests advantages of the less industrialized lifestyle.

Forest Bathing (Shinrin-yoku)

This practice of mindful forest walks, popular in Japan, can induce relaxation and reduce stress (i.e., provide restoration; see video. Over the past decade, studies have identified several beneficial outcomes, including lowered sympathetic nervous system arousal (reduced pulse and blood pressure), reduced cortisol levels, and improvements on psychological measures (reduced hostility and depression; increased liveliness). Comparable outcomes result from group walking in nature. Do students think there are different effects from solo-walking as compared to group walking in silence?

Several research articles on this topic are available at http://www.natureandforesttherapy.org/forest-therapy-research.html


Measuring the Association Between Happiness and Materialism

Psychologists who have studied consumerism and materialism have found that a materialistic values orientation is negatively correlated with subjective well-being (Dittmar, Bond, Hurst, & Kasser, 2014; Easterbrook, Wright, Dittmar, & Banegerjee, 2014; Kasser, et al, 2014: Wright & Larsen, 1993). Individuals who focus on image, status, money, and possessions tend to report lower self esteem, poorer quality relationships, and less life satisfaction overall. Many college students are in the process of setting goals in pursuit of a satisfying life. They are in a prime position to empirically examine the adage that “money can’t buy happiness” and discuss their findings as they relate to a sustainable future. Belk (1985) and Richins and Dawson (1992) are sources for scales to measure materialism. There are many measures of subjective well-being that students could use.

Reflections on The Wilderness Effect

Ask students who have had experiences camping or living in wilderness or near-wilderness areas to describe their subjective experience. Our students report a variety of positive effects including feeling less stressed, being more tuned in to their surroundings, feeling content with few material possessions, and experiencing a closer sense of community among the group. They also report a culture shock when returning to the urban context characterized by feeling overstimulated, harried, overwhelmed by their possessions, and disconnected from the people around them.


Films: Negative Effects of Consumerism on People and the Planet

CONSUMED: IDENTITY AND ANXIETY IN AN AGE OF PLENTY (2011, 52 min.) This documentary, available online and in DVD format, takes a close look at the effect of consumerism on our health and on the planet. Experts in evolutionary psychology, marketing, and sustainable design offer insight into the many problems of Western society’s obsession with material goods, and suggest several changes we can make to help ourselves and to benefit the environment. Detailed description SHOP ‘TIL YOU DROP: THE CRISIS OF CONSUMERISM (2010, 90 min. or 50 min.) This film examines the negative aspects of our society’s pursuit of happiness through consumerism, exposing the erosion of natural resources and basic human values that stem from our buying habits. Experts from a variety of fields weigh in on this subject and provide insight into its far reaching consequences and causes. Detailed description.

Websites: Wilderness Therapy

For information on wilderness therapy/outdoor behavioral healthcare, see the following sites:

  • Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Industry Council (OBHIC) OBHIC is an organization of behavioral health providers who are committed to the utilization of outdoor modalities to assist young people and their families to make positive change. OBHIC’s mission is to unite its members and to promote the common good of our programs standards and our industry at large… by developing and policing the standards of excellence for membership and to have effective means of operating a service business by sharing and discussing thoughts and processes. [ Excerpt [from the website]
  • Wilderness Therapy & Treatment/Outdoor Behavioral Health Programs This site from the Mentor Research Institute contains a collection of links to wilderness therapy providers and resources.

Suggested Readings For Students

DeAngelis, T. (2013, September). Therapy gone wild. Monitor on Psychology, 44(8), 48.

Scott, B. A., Amel, E. L. Koger, S. M., & Manning, C. M. (2016). Healing the split between planet and self: Why we all need to walk on the wild side. In Psychology for sustainability(4th ed, pp. 263-293). New York: Routledge.

Scott, B. A., Amel, E. L., Koger, S. M., & Manning, C. M. (2016). Making ourselves sick: Health costs of unsustainable living. In Psychology for sustainability (4th ed, pp. 231-261). New York: Routledge.

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