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. 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 pointed to a 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).

Transformational Resilience

Psychologist and Environmental Scientist, Bob Doppelt, organized an international coalition (The Resource Innovation Group) to help prepare people “to constructively deal with the psychosocial traumas and stresses generated by climate disruption,” including extreme temperatures, hurricanes, forest fires, drought, rising sea levels, etc. His model of Resilient GROWTH (Doppelt, 2016) includes Presencing and Purposing skills, and the book contains many activities that could be incorporated into class discussion or activities.


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 (see Restorative Environments). 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 therapeutic 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 therapeutic benefits of contact with nature and have implemented “eco-therapies” to help their clients (see Ecotherapies and Wilderness Therapy).

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.

Forest Bathing (Shinrin-yoku)

This practice of mindful forest walks, popular in Japan, can induce relaxation and reduce stress; that is, act as a “restorative environment” (see shinrin-yoku.org, including several introductory videos). 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 the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides & Programs website

Ecotherapies and Wilderness Therapy

Contact with nature is therapeutic for a variety of mental health issues (e.g., 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 “eco-anxiety,” the 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) 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; but see Parslow, Jorm, Christensen, Rodgers, & Jacomb, 2005; and Mueller, Gee & Bures, 2018, for studies on adverse health outcomes associated with pet ownership in older adults.) Recently, interdisciplinary researchers have investigated the “social neuroscience of human-animal interactions” (Freund, et al., 2016), and the role of animals in educational settings (Gee, Fine, & McCardle, 2017).

Animal-assisted therapy is a growing field, used for the treatment of children with developmental disorders (autism spectrum, attention deficit/hyperactivity, conduct-, and oppositional-defiant disorder), as well as other populations (the elderly, palliative care patients, trauma, and chronic health conditions such as AIDS) (Fine, 2015). Katcher (2002) suggested that observed increases in self-image, social competence, and cooperation, and decreases in aggression, result from a “liminal” state induced by interaction with animals. Katcher (2000; Beck and Katcher (2003)) posited that human-animal interaction constitutes one example of the broader biophilic benefits of humans’ interaction with various forms of nonhuman nature such as plants, gardens, and wilderness.

Positive Psychology And Sustainability

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

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 noted 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 her article, Gullone reviewed research comparing mental health outcomes in industrialized and developing worlds that suggests advantages of the less industrialized lifestyle.


Gratitude practices are present in all religious and spiritual traditions, and are an important component of the challenging work of creating a sustainable future. Gratitude is included in various positive psychological interventions, as it helps to improve subjective well-being, and may alleviate symptoms of mild-moderate depression and anxiety (Parks & Biswas-Diener, 2013).  Specific benefits of a regular gratitude practice (e.g., at least once per week) include (Emmons, 2010; Emmons & McCullough, 2003):

  • Psychological: positive affect, alert, energetic, enthused, attentive;
  • Physical: higher levels of exercise, better sleep, fewer symptoms of illness;
  • Interpersonal: more helpful and socially connected, less lonely and isolated.

Based on the following chart (Emmons, 2010), students could consider ways in which they feel and express gratitude towards the Earth/non-human nature, as well as ways they and/or others experience non-gratitude and ingratitude. From this perspective, how might gratitude lead to more sustainable actions?

Gratitude Non-Gratitude Ingratitude
Recognize benefit Fail to recognize benefit Find fault with the benefit
Acknowledge receiving benefit Fail to acknowledge receiving benefit Impugn motive of benefactor
Return the favor Fail to return the favor Return harm for good

Strength of Character

Peterson and Seligman (2004) identified 6 virtues, comprising 24 character strengths. One positive psychology intervention involves identifying one’s own “signature strengths” and using them in a new way each day for a week (students can take the VIA (Values in Action) strengths survey for free). Research suggests that when people focus on using their strengths, they experience reduced anxiety and depression, and greater happiness and subjective well-being (i.e., improved mental health).  Note that these positive outcomes resemble those associated with less materialistic values (e.g., Kasser, 2004).

People using this technique report feeling more energized (whereas focusing on weaknesses generally leads to feeling drained); they look forward to activities that use their strengths, are generally more successful, and feel more satisfied afterwards; in contrast, people dread activities that rely on their weaknesses, and are less effective. People enjoy learning new skills or information that serves their strengths, while it is very difficult to improve in one’s areas of weakness.

How do each of the 6 “virtues” (wisdom and knowledge; courage; temperance; justice; love; transcendence) relate to the project of building a sustainable world? After lecturing on this material, instructors could assign the Living your strengths activity described in the Conservation Psychology module, under Class Activities.


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.

Emotional Impact Statement

Reflective essay prompt: Consider your thoughts, emotions, and behavior as you read/learn about the various ecological problems facing humanity, and write a short paper (~ 1-2 pages, double spaced) describing what you learned about yourself. Here are some questions you may wish to answer:

  • Thoughts: Did you skim the material, thinking “I already know all this?” Did you question or doubt the content in the chapter?  Was your curiosity aroused: “Really?  I need to look into that…”
  • Emotions: Did you feel excited by the potential for creating a new and more sustainable community or world? Did you feel sad or overwhelmed? Did you feel angry? Surprised?
  • Behaviors: What did you do with your reactions?  Distract yourself with the internet, TV, or your text messages? Did you crawl into a bag of potato chips or crack open a beer? Did you call a friend to talk about the thoughts and feelings you were having about our environmental crisis?  Did you investigate environmental groups you could join?

Personal Tech-Check

This assignment requires you to take a critical look at the role of technology in your life and consider how it may be negatively impacting your subjective well-being. There are three steps to the assignment:

  • COLLECT DATA: Identify electronic devices you use regularly and for what purposes (texting, web surfing, social networking, gaming, doing online schoolwork, blogging or vlogging, entertainment, etc.). For one week, keep track of when, and for how long, you engage with technology.
  • PUT DATA IN CONTEXT: When did the activities you engage in originate (historically speaking)? When did they become a part of your routines? How does your usage compare to the averages for people your age? (Note that you will need to find data on this.)
  • INTERPRET DATA: How is your life different with technology than it would be without? (How) does your use of technology positively affect your well-being and functioning? How might it be negatively affecting you? (consider topics such as sleep deprivation, less time for direct social contact, volunteerism, exercise or time outdoors, etc.)

Be Positive

Instructors could assign one of the following Positive Psychological Interventions (Emmons, 2010) for students to practice for at least one week, or ask them to use one strategy per week over the course of several weeks. Students should keep a journal, reflecting on the impact(s) of these exercises. Why might these be important practices for activists and others working to create a more sustainable society?

  • 3 good things: Each evening, write down 3 good things that happened during the day, and what role you played in their occurrence. Be creative, not repetitive.
  • Life summary: Write a 1-page summary of your life as you would like it to be remembered.
  • Gratitude visit:  Write a letter to someone expressing your gratitude & deliver it in person. (This could be adapted to expressing gratitude to an animal, plant, or place in nature).
  • Active-constructive responding: Listen carefully when people you care about report good events to you, and go out of your way to respond actively and constructively.
  • Savoring: Each day, intentionally savor at least two experiences. These could be “everyday pleasures,” connections with important people or places in your life, or aspects of your life as a whole.  Associate each experience with the word gift.
  • Pay it forward: In what ways might you “give back” to others (including non-human nature) as an appropriate response for the gratitude you feel for the gifts in your life?

Cultivating Hope

John Lennon is quoted as saying, “While there’s life, there’s hope.”  Ask students to identify experiences, practices, ideas, etc. that give them hope. They could discuss their thoughts in small groups.  Instructors could also assign an inspiring video from some of the people who have contributed to making our world more sustainable (e.g., Wangari MaathaiDick & Jeanne Roy; Kelsey Juliana; Boyan Slat) and ask students if hearing their stories inspires hope. Students might also enjoy The Starfish Story (aka The Star Thrower).

Multimedia Resources

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.

Website: Transformational Resilience

Widespread social disruption and trauma are already occurring as a result of the changing global climate (extreme weather events, drought, rising sea levels, increased illness, water and food shortages, forced migration, etc.), and are only expected to worsen, unless aggressive emission reduction efforts are rapidly employed. The Resource Innovation Group, led by Psychologist and Environmental Scientist, Bob Doppelt, encourages the Transformational Resilience program to help individuals and organizations “learn neuroscience-based preventative resilience skills.”  The goal is to foster the ability “to constructively cope with and use climate-enhanced adversities as catalysts to learn, grow, and enhance personal, collective, and ecological well-being.”


Websites: Positive Psychology

Website and Film: Shinrin-Yoku (Forest Bathing)

This practice of mindful forest walks, popular in Japan, can induce relaxation and reduce stress; that is, act as a “restorative environment” (see shinrin-yoku.org, including several introductory videos). Several research articles on this topic are available at the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides & Programs website.

Website and Films: Nature Rx

Nature-Rx is a grassroots movement dedicated to entertaining and informing people about the healing and humorous aspects of nature, including by producing a series of spoof commercials.


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.

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.

Suggested Readings For Students

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

Doherty, T. J. & Clayton, S. (2011). The Psychological impacts of global climate changeAmerican Psychologist,  66,  265–276. 

Kaplan, K. (2018, October 8). Study examines how climate change puts Americans’ mental health at risk. Los Angeles Times.

Pearson, D. G. & Craig, T. (2014). The great outdoors? Exploring the mental health benefits of natural environments. Frontiers in Psychology, 21, https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01178. 

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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