Tag Archives: Ecotherapy

Using nature as a therapeutic partner

By Lindsey Phillips April 26, 2018

In 2013, officials in Melbourne, Australia, assigned the city’s trees ID numbers and email addresses to make it easier for citizens to report problems such as fallen limbs and unwieldy branches. However, Melburnians used the email-a-tree-service for another purpose: to talk directly to the trees. They sent emails to the trees expressing their love and appreciation, and they also treated the trees as friends, discussing topics such as school tests, tree biology, construction work and politics.

This unexpected exchange underscores the human desire to reconnect with nature, yet urbanization and technology often distance people from the natural world. “Nowadays, we’re spending close to 90 percent of our time indoors,” says Megan Delaney, an assistant professor in the Department of Professional Counseling at Monmouth University in New Jersey. “This is a major shift in how we utilize our time. And some of that has to do with how we live. We are in our cars. We are in our offices. … We don’t walk anywhere anymore.”

This disconnect comes at a cost because nature plays a role in our mental health. In fact, a prescription of nature may be just what the counselor ordered. Research suggests a possible link between increases in obesity, diabetes and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms and a lack of outside time, says Patricia Hasbach, a licensed professional counselor and clinical psychotherapist with a private practice in Oregon.

Delaney, who has a small private practice in New Jersey and recorded a podcast on ecotherapy this past year for The Thoughtful Counselor (thethoughtfulcounselor.com), says research also suggests a connection between the increase in anxiety and depression in children and their disconnection from nature. “There’s been a loss of this free play,” Delaney argues. “If [children] go outside at all, it’s controlled.”

Nature isn’t a panacea, but even going outside for as little as five minutes a day will provide a boost to well-being, Delaney contends. In addition, exposure to nature can help improve relationship skills, reduce stress and aggression, help with the ability to focus, reduce symptoms of ADHD, improve impulse control and even improve fetal growth and birth rate, she says.

Unwilding ecotherapy

Despite the positive benefits, the idea of incorporating nature into counseling often overwhelms clinicians and clients because they assume it means wholeheartedly embracing the “wild” — packing up their belongings and taking a solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail (à la Cheryl Strayed) to “find themselves.” For others, the very thought of “wilderness” or “nature” raises fears of the possible dangers, ranging from bug bites and sunburn to life-threatening injuries and encounters with dangerous animals.

The word ecotherapy often evokes a common myth of being fully immersed in the natural world, living and sleeping on the ground, says Delaney, an American Counseling Association member whose book Nature Is Nurture: Counseling and the Natural World is under contract. “That’s not what [ecotherapy] is about,” she argues. “It’s about our reconnection to our relationship with nature in whatever form that feels right for you. It could be a window box with your tomato plants. … I think that dispelling that myth is important.”

Ryan Reese, an assistant professor of counseling at Oregon State University-Cascades, agrees that a misconception often surrounds the idea of integrating nature into therapy. “[Clinicians] don’t have to take clients out into a wilderness setting in order for it to be EcoWellness or ecotherapy,” he says. “It can be at a park or walking on a trail that’s flat.”

Thus, expanding counselors’ and clients’ definition of nature becomes key, Reese argues. “We all are going to define nature in our own sociocultural, political context. How I define nature is probably going to be different than [for] somebody who grew up in downtown Manhattan.”

Reese, who has a private practice in Oregon, finds that broadly defining nature is beneficial, especially for clients who lack access to more traditional natural settings such as rivers, woods and mountains. To achieve this, he says, counselors might work with clients to expand their assumptions about nature by asking if it could include a local park, their backyards or even a view of trees from an office window.

When Delaney presented at the ACA 2017 Conference & Expo in San Francisco on wellness and nature, she was shocked that approximately 150 people attended. At the end of the presentation, several clinicians approached Delaney and stated they were already conducting nature-based counseling but wondered if they were doing it correctly. To which she responded, “If it feels good, you are probably doing it right.”

“People are doing [ecotherapy] intuitively and don’t know the theory behind it,” she continues. “They probably are taking their clients outside. They probably are prescribing nature. They’re probably doing things with kids in natural spaces. Maybe they bring their dogs into the office. … When they read the science and research behind it and the theory … [they] get it.”

There is growing interest in ecotherapy among counselors and, thus, more options for training, says Hasbach, an ACA member who teaches ecotherapy at Lewis & Clark College in Oregon. Her continuing education course, “Prescribing Nature: Incorporating Ecotherapy Methods Into Your Clinical Practice,” quickly fills up with professional counselors and therapists from all over the country.

Reese, an ACA member who occasionally offers a one-day workshop on interventions and ethics for integrating the natural world into therapy, recommends that counselors take training courses to help them consider things they might not think about otherwise. For example, he has noticed that his boundaries can change when he is outdoors with a client. Because he feels calm and relaxed, he is more susceptible to getting lost in the beauty of nature and being less focused on what is going on with the client. He advises clinicians to be aware of how the counselor-client interaction might differ in an outdoor setting versus an indoor setting.

“It’s not that you don’t allow yourself to engage in the experience too. It’s just making sure that the client is ultimately who you’re there for and not yourself,” Reese says. “Sometimes, I just get the vibe [from people who want to] do this outdoor work … that it’s more about the clinician than it is about the client.” Thus, counselors need to be mindful of their own reasons and motivations for incorporating nature into their practice.

More than a ‘beautiful backdrop’

“Ecotherapy is one of those techniques that therapists and counselors can have in their toolbox, but they also need to know how to use it effectively,” Hasbach asserts. Ecotherapy goes beyond simply walking in nature or playing with a dog, she points out. Instead, she explains that it involves a triadic relationship between the client, the counselor and nature.

Thus, nature operates as a therapeutic partner. “[Nature] is an active agent in the work that we’re doing with our clients. It’s not just a beautiful backdrop,” Hasbach says.

Hasbach, a pioneer in the practice of ecotherapy, has co-edited two books on the subject — Ecopsychology: Science, Totems and the Technological Species and The Rediscovery of the Wild. She stresses the importance of incorporating a “nature language,” which is a way of speaking about patterns that represent how humans interact with nature in meaningful ways, such as sleeping under the night sky. “These interactive patterns can be really powerful if [clinicians] use them skillfully and intentionally in asking clients to incorporate them into some of their homework,” she says.

Hasbach had one client who was struggling with the end of an important relationship. Hasbach knew the client was a good photographer, so she asked her to take photographs of the sunset while contemplating the end of this relationship. The client’s journal of the experience reflected the similarity between the ending of the light and her relationship. Without being asked, the client also brought in a portfolio of sunrise pictures to discuss how this was also a new beginning for her — which was going to be Hasbach’s next assignment.

Nature can also operate as a metaphor in therapy. “There [are] metaphors in nature every day about things that we’re going through in our lives that can be powerful,” Delaney points out.

For example, Reese asked a client who had severe anxiety to identify with a section of the path they would walk. The client picked a picnic table with a view of a river. “We would go there each time, and we would talk about his view of that experience and his view of himself in that experience and how it continued to change. … Over time, he would go there on his own, and to me, that was the real special part,” Reese says.

Hasbach keeps a basket of 20-25 nature objects such as stones, feathers, shells and pieces of bark in her office. When clients are struggling for words, she asks them to see if any of the objects depict what they are feeling. Hasbach once had a client who was depressed about a breakup, but the client initially had a hard time talking about it. Hasbach asked the client if anything in the basket resonated with her in that moment, and the client picked out a naturally woven ball of vines. She said she felt like her life was a tangle and empty inside, just like the ball of vines. “It was just a prop that allowed her to be able to begin to talk about what she was feeling,” Hasbach says.

Nature can also be a metaphor for resiliency, Delaney points out. “After a … forest fire, the forest regrows. It starts over. It regenerates. It heals. Those are things we can talk about with our clients — being able to see how nature is reborn from even that horrific experience. … [The client’s] natural tendency as a natural being or animal being is to be resilient and to finds ways of growing and rebuilding.”

Connecting through nature

Reese also finds that engaging nature as a co-facilitator helps with building trust between the counselor and client. “Whether we are out in [nature] or we’re talking about it inside, that’s what we’re connecting through. We’re talking about [the clients’] nature connection,” meaning what they like doing outdoors. “We go for a walk. We just talk about other kinds of things, not their issues, and then, inevitably, what comes up are their issues,” he explains.

“[Nature] doesn’t explicitly judge you,” Reese continues, “[so] that offers … a pathway for people presenting with trust challenges, which [are] oftentimes based in relational trauma.” The fact that clients can talk and process in a space where no one is critiquing or yelling at them can be restorative and healing, he adds.

Reese has been piloting the Fishing for Wellness project with an alternative treatment community for people presenting with adverse life experiences. He explains that for clients dealing with complex trauma, building trust and engaging in conversation directly can be difficult. So, Reese integrates fishing as a means of creating a nonjudgmental space that bolsters wellness and mindfulness.

While teaching clients the mechanics of fly-casting and the general principles of fishing, Reese talks about being open to experiences and accepting of one’s self in the casting process. If clients get frustrated, Reese checks in with them and often slows the process down. Once, when a client was upset that he wasn’t catching any fish, Reese asked him to put down the fishing rod and pay attention to what was happening for him in that moment. Next, he invited the client to notice one thing he found beautiful or appreciated around him. Later, he processed what this experience was like for the client and what it brought up. Together, they identified patterns around the client’s frustration tolerance and behaviors in his life.

“The nature piece is a window into people’s challenges [and] presenting problems, and it’s also this amazing coping resource, especially when people can develop an effective connection with it,” Reese says. “The goal is that [clients] begin accessing some of these outdoor resources on their own without [the counselor].”

Some nature-based techniques work well with certain mental health issues. For example, Hasbach has found that walk-and-talk therapy is often effective with teenagers and people who are dealing with anxiety and social skills deficits. These clients typically find it more comfortable to walk side by side with the counselor rather than sitting and looking at each other face-to-face, she says.

Hasbach also believes that nature-based interventions are effective for clients with posttraumatic stress disorder. “It’s a way of helping [clients] recognize this calming effect that nature can have and this sense of belonging because many times, they feel very disassociated. So, this sense of belonging to something bigger than [themselves] can be very helpful,” she explains.

Integrating nature into holistic wellness

Even after dispelling the myth that ecotherapy must involve complete immersion into a natural setting, counselors still might find it difficult to think of nature-based techniques that work well in office settings. After realizing there wasn’t a clear guide on how to intentionally incorporate nature into a traditional counseling setting, Reese, along with the late Jane Myers, who was a leading proponent of wellness in the counseling profession, developed the EcoWellness model. It explores the extent to which one’s connection to nature affects wellness. The model includes seven domains — physical access, sensory access, connection, protection, preservation, spirituality and community connectedness — that are correlates of wellness.

The EcoWellness model “is not necessarily a specific intervention. … It’s more of a way of thinking or conceptualizing how to be effective in integrating this human-nature connection into counseling,” Reese says. Other wellness models do not explicitly mention the nature connection, but nature is another part of wellness and a way to aid in the healing process, he adds.

Because research clearly shows the wellness effects of nature contact, Reese encourages all counselors to include nature-based questions (for example, how much time clients spend outdoors, what clients enjoy outdoors) in their intake process, even if they simply ask clients about their experience outdoors in the context of exercise or physical wellness. He argues that if a client’s relationship with nature isn’t included in the intake process, then counselors are missing out on a vitally important part of holistic wellness.

Reese addresses the seven domains of EcoWellness with all of his clients by having a conversation with them about their experiences with nature. “My goal is to develop a pretty contextualized understanding of what that person’s connection with nature is like, how they benefit from it [and] how they don’t benefit from it,” he says.

Hasbach also weaves in a few questions in the intake session to gain a better understanding of clients’ histories and current interactions with nature. Sometimes the answers to these questions also reveal details about clients’ family life, she adds, such as hunting with their grandfather or hiding in the woods to escape violence in the home. Her questions include asking what recollections clients have about being outside in nature as a child, what their family members’ views were of the natural world, what clients like to do outdoors now and how often they engage in that.

Too often, clients’ connections to nature are left out of the conversation. These initial nature-based questions demonstrate that it is an appropriate topic and invite clients to discuss it in a therapeutic setting, Hasbach explains. In addition, the questions help counselors determine the best approach for integrating nature into therapy based on the client’s personal experiences.

Hasbach also finds eco-genograms to be a helpful technique for discovering clients’ connections to nature. Counselors often use genograms to encourage clients to think and talk about their family histories in more depth, but, traditionally, only people are included in genograms, Hasbach says. With eco-genograms, clients can include pets or even natural elements such as mountains or rivers that were important to them. They can also include facts such as living near a farm, having a garden or hunting their own food, Hasbach explains.

Counselors shouldn’t assume that everyone’s early experiences with nature were positive, Hasbach warns. That is why asking about a client’s experience with nature as a child during the intake session is important. If a client discloses that he or she had a frightening experience in the woods, then the counselor shouldn’t take the client on a walk in the woods. “[Clinicians] have to understand the client’s experience of the natural world, just like [they] have to understand the client’s experience of society, family [and] interpersonal relationships,” Hasbach explains.

In fact, taking clients outdoors may not always be beneficial for them, Reese notes. One of his clients who had been assaulted by a man told Reese that she didn’t feel comfortable working with him in an outdoor space. When they went back into the office, the dynamic shifted, and she felt safer.

Bringing nature inside

There’s good news for counselors who are hesitant about taking clients outside: They can stay inside and still use ecotherapy.

“The logistics of … meeting in a park or going to a specific place for individual sessions can present a challenge for many clinicians,” Hasbach notes. Instead, counselors can assign nature-based homework for clients to extend the therapeutic hour, she advises.

Hasbach and Delaney both find that nature-based assignments encourage clients to go outdoors, unplug from technology and incorporate the healing and restorative aspects of nature outside of the session.

For example, Hasbach sometimes asks clients to sit in their backyards or to take a walk on the beach and think about a question with which they’ve been struggling. She also uses a “special place” assignment in which clients select a special place that they agree to visit several times each week — during varied weather conditions and at different times of the day — for a specific number of weeks. This exercise fosters heightened sensory perception, a reconnection with and expanded knowledge of a natural place, and a sense of belonging, Hasbach explains.

Counselors can also make their office spaces greener. Hasbach first realized the powerful influence of nature during an office session before she was intentionally incorporating ecotherapy into her practice. On this particular day, she forgot to turn on a water feature that she regularly used. During her first session, the client noticed and asked about the absence of the water sound.

This experience taught Hasbach to be mindful of the elements in her office setting. She still has a rock fountain that provides the soothing sound of trickling water, and she often brings in freshly cut flowers. She has also purposefully arranged her office so that her clients face a window overlooking a tree canopy.

Research supports this idea of greening the office space. As Delaney points out, high-quality natural light from windows has been shown to decrease employee discomfort and improve productivity. As a result, she advises counselors to let in more natural light to their offices when possible, add plants, put up pictures of natural places and play nature sounds such as gurgling streams and distant thunder. Delaney even uses her computer screen as a way of displaying various nature scenes.

Technological nature

With an increase in urbanization and technology use, people often can find themselves even more removed from the natural world and spending more time in front of screens than outside, Hasbach points out. According to a 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation report, children ages 8-18 spend more than 7.5 hours a day on average with media. Common Sense Media reported that the amount of time young children (up to age 8) spent on mobile devices tripled from 15 minutes a day in 2013 to 48 minutes a day in 2017.

“Technology is with us,” Hasbach acknowledges. “We are technological beings as well as natural beings. We have always been toolmakers, so it’s not going away.” Rather than fight that fact, counselors need to help clients achieve a better balance between their technological and natural selves. “Richard Louv [author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder and The Nature Principle: Reconnecting With Life in a Virtual Age] … says, ‘The more high-tech we become, the more nature we need,’ and I think that speaks beautifully to the balance that we have to find,” Hasbach reflects.

It is perhaps fortunate then that technological nature — digital representations of nature, including nature music and videos — can have benefits for one’s well-being. Research suggests that technological nature has similar properties to the real thing, Reese says. Although being out in nature is most effective, technological nature is better than no nature at all, he adds.

In 2016, Reese co-authored a study published in The Journal of Humanistic Counseling that examined the use and preferences of nature media accessed through YouTube and found that people often use nature media to help them sleep, study or destress. “People are still accessing a form of nature even in digital form and saying that they are benefiting from it,” Reese says. This finding might help counselors and clients expand their concept of what nature can be, he adds, especially for people who may not have easy access to outdoor spaces or those presenting with a severe pathology such as paranoid schizophrenia or severe obsessive-compulsive disorder. Thus, for people with no access or limited access to nature, such as those in prisons, nursing homes or health care environments, technological nature can play an important role.

Hasbach was part of a study that incorporated nature imagery into a prison that used solitary confinement to determine if it would affect the inmates’ behavior and well-being. The inmates spent either 23 or 24 hours per day confined to individual cells. Four or five times each week, they were allowed to spend an hour alone in the exercise area (another cellblock) or the recreation yard (a concrete enclosure with the top open to the sky).

The prison installed a projector in the exercise cell. Half of the inmates were given the option of watching a nature video during their hour of exercise time; the other half were not. The findings revealed a 26 percent decrease in violent offenses among the inmates who watched the nature videos. When Hasbach interviewed some of the inmates, she learned that the natural scenes had a restorative value for them. Some inmates said that when they were agitated, recalling the nature scenes helped them calm down. Hasbach explains that they were using the images to self-regulate.

However, Hasbach is concerned that technological nature may become a convenient substitute, even when real nature is available, especially in schools. Instead, she stresses that counselors should incorporate technological nature only as an augmentation to authentic nature.

Ethical considerations

Hasbach identifies confidentiality, avoiding harm and competency as three ethical considerations central to ecotherapy. Reese says he has encountered negative reactions about including EcoWellness in counseling in part because some counseling professionals have concerns about how to implement it ethically. Thus, both Hasbach and Reese recommend that counselors who want to pursue nature-based work have a solid plan for what they are doing, why they are doing it, what their hopes or outcomes are and how they can incorporate nature to be most beneficial to the client.

In terms of confidentiality, counselors and clients need to discuss the differences between going outside for a session and staying inside the office, Hasbach says. Among questions to consider: What happens if you and the client are discussing a sensitive issue on a trail and someone walks up behind you? What if you encounter someone whom either you or the client know? What happens if the client gets emotional on a trail?

After having a discussion, Hasbach documents how clients say they want to handle these situations. Some clinicians might take it a step further and have clients sign a waiver, she notes. Counselors also need to ask clients about allergies or physical limitations and document those as well. Reese spends at least two sessions indoors with clients discussing these possible scenarios and clients’ concerns before he even thinks about taking them outside.

Physical safety is another big consideration when working with groups, Reese says. “[Group work] adds an element of risk. You’ve got more people that you need to manage … so having a co-facilitator, having at least another person there who can help, in my mind is really important for the physical safety [of clients].”

Counselors must be competent and prepared for the environment they are taking clients into, Hasbach emphasizes. Walking on a bike path or working in a garden outside a home office doesn’t require as much physical competency as taking clients out by a river where they could be walking on rocks and have a heightened level of wilderness, she explains. Whenever she goes outside with a client, she takes a small emergency bag with a cell phone, water and allergy medicine. She says the only time she has had to use this bag was when offering water to a client who had gotten emotional.

Finding a balance

Melbourne’s email-a-tree initiative aimed to help with city maintenance, but it also revealed people’s need to reconnect with nature and find a balance between their technological and natural selves. It also reaffirms Louv’s claim that the more high-tech we become, the more we need nature.

“We are nature. We are a part of it, not apart from it,” Hasbach says. Ecotherapy provides a healthy environment for counselors and clients, and it gives clients permission to admit that they are out of balance and need to change, she continues. Ecotherapy also provides counselors and clients with tools to help clients balance the pace and stress of life, she adds.

For Hasbach, helping humans reconnect with nature and find (or rediscover) their balance is an exciting area for the counseling profession to explore. “When we really look at what is at the heart of people’s well-being, the environment that we’re in is part of that, so I think ecopsychology and ecotherapy [have] a [role] to play.”




Lindsey Phillips is a contributing writer to Counseling Today and a UX content strategist living in Northern Virginia. She has written on topics including health, social justice and technology. Contact her at consulting@lindseynphillips.com or through her website at lindseynphillips.com.


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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

The Counseling Connoisseur: Eco-culture: Clinical application of nature-informed therapy

By Cheryl Fisher November 27, 2017

“Each of us inherits the story of our people, communities, nations, and it is remembered through, with and in the context of the land and seas, and air, and creatures.” — Kimberly Ruffin


Anna, a small-framed 15-year-old Caucasian female, sat engulfed by the overstuffed chair in my office. She looked down, past the floor, to the day her world collapsed. She was walking home from school when three men jumped her, threw her against the huge old oak tree that lay on the outskirts of her family’s farm and proceeded to rape her. They left her against the tree, with torn clothes, battered and forever changed.

After a time (how long Anna could not recall), she walked home to her beloved lakeside farm that was just a quarter-mile from the assault. She described her home as her “safe place” where she was able to “just be myself,” surrounded by her animals, which included horses, dogs, goats and chickens. After finishing her numerous chores around the farm, she would grab a book and take her kayak to the center of the lake, spending hours immersed in the narratives. This had been her haven … until now.

Anna’s mother met her at the door, and Anna collapsed in her arms. The police were called but were unable to make sense of the traumatized youth’s story and unintentionally violated her with their dismissal. She was left feeling ashamed, alone and unlovable. She began isolating herself from her siblings, her friends and even her animals.


Eco-cultural sensitivity

According to Dan McAdams, Ruthellen Josselson and Amia Lieblich in their book Identity and Story: Creating Self in Narrative, identity development is a “process of dialogue between the person and the host culture. The individual appropriates meaning from the culture in the form of important attachments to people, events, valued objects, environments and even orientations to our bodies (i.e., embodied identity).”

The history of humanity is held in the context of the ecosystems in which it takes place. Conflict leaves marks on the earth and with the people and animals who reside in that setting. Although most of us do not rely on cues from the sea or sky to determine our fate or next move, we still rely on the global eco-community to provide food, clean water, medicine and oxygen. Although we are removed, we remain interconnected, and our connection is just as important to our overall well-being as it was centuries ago.

Human development has been described as a biopsychosocialspiritual experience that is a complex interaction of genetics and internal and external environments. Among the external contributors to a person’s growth are family, community and culture (which examines customs, beliefs and values).

However, often excluded from a cultural assessment is the green space and biodiversity experienced by a child. Green space refers to open space, urban spaces such as parks or any natural setting in a person’s regular surroundings. Biodiversity is a term that describes the variety of (and interaction between) life on earth. This information provides a framework to the early interactions among natural settings that inform an individual’s concept of self within a more global context.

As clinicians, we are greatly remiss when we fail to explore a person’s eco-culture. Children learn through early interactions with their environment. According to Stephanie Linden, a special education curriculum specialist at Crofton Elementary School in Maryland, “A child’s first language is not verbal; it is sensory. Children learn to communicate through their senses. Therefore, it is imperative to have an understanding of their routine sensory climate.”

This is especially of interest when considering the variety of environments that may be experienced. A person living in an urban setting may know only of concrete playgrounds with metal benches and pigeons gathering on windowsills. This is different from a person who lives on a farm with goats and horses. Furthermore, consider individuals arriving from other countries who may experience human-animal-plant relationships differently. For example, a child from India (where cows are viewed as sacred) may find a school fieldtrip to a dairy farm to be disturbing. Therefore, assessing for eco-culture demonstrates a level of cultural sensitivity that encompasses a holistic understanding of the person’s worldview.


Eco-culture and nature therapy

Ronen Berger, researcher, author and founder of Nature Therapy in Tel Aviv, along with Mooli Lahad, medical psychologist and professor at Tel-Hai College, identified several variables that contribute to overall resiliency. In their BASIC Ph Resiliency Model, Berger and Lahad noted that it is the combination of our Beliefs, Affect, Social Functioning, Imagination, Cognition and Physiology that aid in coping with stressful and traumatic events. However, they found that most clinicians and academics focus on cognitions alone. In addition, the researchers proposed that engaging in nature promotes creativity and aids in physical, emotional, social, cognitive and moral development.

Berger and Lahad concluded, “Nature invites us to make room for the child within, those parts of us that feel, imagine and are present in the experience of playing. Connecting to the cycles of nature can help us bond with parallel processes in our lives and to relate to them in a broad universal context. An encounter with a migrating bird, a dead lizard or a blooming plant can be a stimulus for expressing a similar story within us, of which we were previously ashamed. Sharing the story can normalize it and impart hope. The direct contact with natural elements, the wind, the earth, the plants, can connect us to our body and can awaken the world of images and emotions. Something in the encounter with nature and its powers has the potential to connect us to ourselves; to our strengths and to our coping resources.”

Engaging in the natural eco-culture of the client can provide a deeper, more meaningful healing.


Anna’s recovery

Anna’s ability to discuss any aspect of her trauma was enhanced when Max, my therapy dog, joined the sessions. Initially, we would take Max for short walks around the practice neighborhood. On one of those walks, Anna proclaimed her love of kayaking and asked if we might be able to go one day. I had never taken a client kayaking before, and I was unsure of the liability and ethical ramifications. Still, Anna felt strongly that she wanted to go kayaking with me on our nearby creek.

Following consultation with several colleagues, I asked Anna’s mother about the possibility of holding a session on the kayaks. To my surprise, Anna’s mother enthusiastically agreed: “Anna is a very proficient kayaker and a very strong swimmer. I am happy to consent.”

The following week, we met at the area where I keep my kayaks. Anna had brought her own. We put the kayaks in on the sandy shore of the lazy creek and paddled around for a while. Anna had become more animated since we took our sessions outdoors, and she eagerly pressed for us to move out of the calm water to the more challenging adjoining river. I decided that this was indicative of her trust in our relationship — to venture into deeper, more challenging waters.

As we entered the mouth of the river, I remembered the bulkhead that was just around the bend. I had frequently found myself paddling too close and instantly getting sucked into the undertow, which resulted in my kayak being thrust into a head-on collision with a rock barrier. I knew how to release from the undertow, but I was curious how my eager client would view the challenge.

As we paddled into the river, the waters began to churn, splashing in the wake of passing boats. Anna stayed safely in the middle of the river, while I deliberately ventured slightly closer to shore. Sure enough, the current grabbed my kayak and forced me against the rock bed. Anna remained safely beyond the current and was surprised to see me paddling against the waves and rocks. She called out to me, “Stop paddling! Just let the waves take you in … then release.”

I acted as if I had not heard her wisdom and continued to struggle with the current. Finally, Anna yelled, “Stop fighting it, Dr. Cheryl! You have to let it take you in … to release you! You will be fine. Just let go!”

AH! YES! Don’t fight it. Just release it! So, I did …and easily paddled to my very wise (and now frowning) client.

“You knew how to do that all along, didn’t you? You were trying to show me that I need to not fight this thing so much, right?”

She lowered her head and began to cry for the first time. We adjoined our paddles and for the rest of the session sat in silence in the middle of the river.

The weeks that followed were an emotional roller coaster filled with disclosure, tears and healing. At the end of one session, Anna announced, “It is time. It is time to return to the oak tree.” She was ready to return to the place where her violation had occurred. To confront the oak tree that had stood witness. The sessions that followed were characterized by imagery and preparation for Anna’s journey to the location of the assault.

Finally, she was ready. We met at the site of the rape. We got out of the car and slowly walked to the tree — a huge ancient oak whose branches, now bare preparing for the winter rest, stretched out, welcoming Anna. I could never have been prepared for what happened next. Anna ran to the tree, wrapped her arms around its wide girth and began to cry, “Thank you!”

Anna had now slipped to the base of the tree and continued, “Thank you! During everything, you stood with me. You held me up. You never left me!”

Anna’s mother and I just looked at each other in astonishment. Anna was grateful to the oak tree for holding witness to her assault and remaining with her throughout the entire atrocity. Anna’s rape is remembered through, with and in the context of the land and seas, and air, and creatures. She wanted to honor the old oak, so she planted bulbs at its base. In the early spring, Anna returned to find the most beautiful small white flowers peeking up through the late frost … a sign that life can hold beauty even after devastation.



Nature provides us with the context of our experiences. It is not separate from, but a container for — a co-journeyer of — our lived experiences. As Berger and Lahad found, “Through the direct contact and connection with nature, people can also touch their own ‘inner’ nature. One can feel authenticity and develop components of personality and important ways of life that might have been hard to express amidst the intensity of modern life.”

As clinicians, we have the ability to facilitate this type of deep healing as we venture into the eco-cultures of our clients and invite them to reconnect with the natural settings of their lives.




Cheryl Fisher

Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland. She is affiliate faculty for Loyola and Fordham Universities. Her research interests include examining sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer, nature-informed therapy and geek therapy. Contact her at cyfisherphd@gmail.com.









Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Nonprofit News: Edible ‘offices’: Adding beauty to your program while helping the hungry

By “Doc Warren” Corson III May 26, 2017

Multitasking is a way of life for many of us, although it would appear that with ever-shrinking budgets, counselors in nonprofit settings have made a true art of it. We can no longer afford to do something that only covers one area. Instead we need to reach deeper to do more with less.

Thankfully, there is a way to mix therapy, education, recreation, nature, beautification, nutrition and holistic health — planting a vegetable garden. The best part? The effort requires little in the way of money for startup and even less in future years.


What is needed

  • South-facing areas: windows, pathways, greenways (anyplace that gets direct sunlight daily)
  • Access to water
  • Planting space: garden areas, pots, planters or anything that can hold soil and seeds. Be creative. We once used a windowsill and gallon milk jugs with the tops cut off.
  • Basic tools: Depending on the size and scope of the project, you might need common gardening tools or nothing more than the ability to open a bag of soil. For larger areas, you will want a hoe, garden shovel, watering can or garden hose, and clippers.
  • Seeds
  • Fertilizer
  • Storage area for tools, supplies and vegetables
  • Patience


How it’s done

All you need is a basic desire to plant and grow vegetables. If you use non-GMO (genetically modified organism) and nonhybrid seeds, you can collect seeds from the vegetables you grow for use in future planting. This allows for minimal startup and sustainability costs. (Note: GMO seeds can be controversial, and at times you are not allowed to collect and save the seeds because of arcane laws. Hybrid seeds are poor choices for saving because they are made from a blend of plants, and the resulting seeds are unpredictable.) If space allows, you can compost any nonedible or spoiled greens. Reusing this compost limits the need to purchase supplemental fertilizers.

Starting the program can take many paths. It can involve simply recruiting a few interested staff members, or it can involve putting out a call to the community (including those whom your nonprofit serves) to look for volunteers. I recommend having a key point person to supply basic information to interested participants. This includes educating them on how this effort ties into positive mental and physical health. The point person will also provide basic training.

Have folks commit to an activity either on a one-time basis or as an ongoing chore. A feeling of ownership will help develop their sense of belonging to the greater community. It can also help to build self-esteem, responsibility and confidence.


What to do with the products

Some nonprofits sell the vegetables they grow as a fundraiser. Others simply share the vegetables with those who participated in the project, and still others share with the volunteers and with the greater community. There is no right answer.


Case study

Here at Pillwillop Therapeutic Farm, we elected to go big with our community growing program by making field areas open to volunteers. The idea was that we could educate on nutrition, share what is harvested with volunteers and those in need, and add a small “take what you need, leave what you can” farm stand.

The first few years were marked with both successes and challenges (broccoli remains my greatest foe, as we have yet to have any real success with it). Starting with a few shovels in the dirt and water collected by hand from a nearby brook, we regularly invested in programming as possible. Applying for competitive grants and other income resources led to a $10,000 “Seeds of Change” grant, as well as other grants, which enabled us to expand our offerings greatly.

We invested thousands of dollars and thousands of man-hours to build infrastructure such as year-round water access to some fields, seasonal access to others and drip irrigation with timers to help preserve water and reduce labor. We also built two large greenhouses (“seasonal high tunnels” in government nomenclature), complete with lights, power outlets and several ADA-compliant planting beds.

We put periodic calls out for volunteers and tried to have volunteers take on leadership roles whenever possible. By modifying our planting processes, we were able to include those who are normally excluded from such programming, including older adults, those with disabilities and those who have allergies to the sun (lighting allows for nighttime planting, care and harvesting). The greenhouses, though unheated, allow for nine to 10 months of garden programming in our area of New England. In fact, April marked our first opportunity of the year to harvest cold-weather crops. We have had limited harvesting go into December.

All told, we have received very positive feedback from volunteers and the community at large. We have helped provide high-quality organic food to those who otherwise would not have access to it and have helped inspire other programs and individuals to start pocket-garden centers and personal plots. We have also seen the emergence of a real community where once there was only unused land.



Results will vary of course, but with a little effort, some time, minimal money and community involvement, you may find that adding beauty to your nonprofit counseling program will not only help the hungry but also fill a need in your program and community.

My advice? Start as small as you need. A few cups on a windowsill in an inner-city office might lead to a rooftop garden or other community garden program.




Here are some links to gardening resources for those who are interested:

  • seedsofchange.com — We have used this company’s seeds and were fortunate to win a competitive grant from them. They appear to be very community minded, and their prices are fair.
  • seedsavers.org — We just discovered this company, and this is our first year using their seeds. We were very impressed with their commitment to seed saving and promoting education on seed saving and gardening practices. You would think that educating about and promoting seed saving would be contrary to a company that sells seeds, and it is, but their greater mission is to help folks be self-sufficient and to also promote education, gardening etc.
  • johnnyseeds.com — I haven’t ordered from this company myself because I already had sources, but many of our garden friends swear by them and the quality of their seeds.
  • reimerseeds.com — I have read some negative reviews online, but in the three or so years that we have ordered tomato seeds from this company, we have had nothing but good experiences. They came highly recommended by a local commercial gardener.

This list is not meant to be exhaustive, nor is it an endorsement. There are many other great seed companies out there. It is important to explore seeds and companies to see what works best for you in terms of customer service and results in your particular environment and soil type.





Dr. Warren Corson III

“Doc Warren” Corson III is a counselor, educator, writer and the founder, developer, and clinical and executive director of Community Counseling Centers of Central CT Inc. (www.docwarren.org) and Pillwillop Therapeutic Farm (www.pillwillop.org). Contact him at docwarren@docwarren.org. Additional resources related to nonprofit design, documentation and related information can be found at docwarren.org/supervisionservices/resourcesforclinicians.html.






Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Preparing for the mental health impact of climate change

By Debbie C. Sturm and Lennis G. Echterling May 10, 2017

Around the globe, coastlines are encroaching on communities, summer days are sweltering and reports of weather catastrophes often dominate the news media. These examples represent only a few of the monumental and pervasive environmental effects of our changing planet.

Climate change may be the most crucial issue confronting the inhabitants of our world today. The dramatic consequences that scientists have been predicting, such as rising sea levels, record-setting high temperatures and an increase in devastating natural disasters, are no longer theoretical. Although some still argue the point, climate change is now a grim reality, not a vague possibility in the distant future.

As devastating as these consequences are on our physical world, climate change also poses enormous threats to our psychological well-being. In a report released in 2012 by the National Wildlife Federation’s climate education program, with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, researchers predicted a sharp rise in mental health issues resulting from events related to climate change in the coming years. These issues include depression and anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, suicide and outbreaks of violence. The elderly, the poor, children and members of the military (and their families) were identified as being among those who will be most psychologically vulnerable.

We believe the counseling profession, which has its conceptual roots in the promotion of human growth and development, must play a more active role in addressing the mental health impact of climate change. For many decades, counselors have worked closely with countless individuals to help them achieve fulfilling careers, realize self-actualization, strengthen personal resilience and seek social justice. Recently, counselors have gained greater acceptance as valuable members of crisis and disaster response teams.

Our extensive training and experience in enhancing well-being enable us to serve as effective catalysts for positive change. Now more than ever, counselors are in a position to shape messaging and lead the way in effective prevention and intervention related to the psychological implications of climate change. This includes promoting climate resilience, strengthening disaster response programs and advocating for vulnerable populations.

Climate resilience and climate refugees

In January 2016, the Department of Housing and Urban Development announced a $48 million grant to move an entire indigenous community from Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, before the land disappears into the Gulf of Mexico. This marks the first allocation of federal dollars to permanently move an entire community impacted by climate change. These displaced people are now known as climate refugees. The main purpose of the grant is to work closely with the inhabitants of this community through a process that will honor their choices. By empowering the people and giving voice to their preferences, choice builds resilience.

Although this tribe is the first to be formally identified as climate refugees within the United States, climate refugee status is not a new phenomenon. The crisis in Syria, for example, has become so complex and tragic that it often eclipses the fact that a climate-related drought was the catalyst for mass migration to the cities, instigating intense cultural and economic conflicts.

Climate change threatens to become a tipping point in more and more areas of the world. Between 50 million and 200 million people could be displaced by 2050, according to the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security. Populations that are economically and culturally vulnerable, such as those whose livelihoods depend on farming and fishing, will feel the impact most especially.

Climate resilience is the notion that we should not wait until there is no choice and people are traumatically displaced by the effects of climate change. Instead, we can help create resilience plans so that those who are impacted have both choice and voice in the matter. The International Red Cross has embraced the notion of climate resilience as a necessary element of preparation for what is to come, and as an opportunity to anticipate the physical, psychological and cultural needs ahead. Climate resilience, which is an integral component of disaster response within the International Red Cross, places significant emphasis on trauma and mental health response.

Place attachment

Consider again the people of Isle de Jean Charles. Although efforts are in place to help with the transition, residents still feel a deep attachment to their home. This isle holds their cultural and spiritual history. Their identity is deeply rooted to the story of this place.

Just as we are connected to our early attachment figures, we also share a deep and abiding attachment to our early places, both individually and culturally. In a 2016 article in The New York Times, Chief Albert Naquin of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe, the ancestral residents of Isle de Jean Charles, observed sadly, “We’re going to lose all our heritage, all our culture.”

Place attachment is the powerful bond that links a person to a place. It develops throughout one’s lifetime and even evolves over centuries throughout the history of a culture. This sense of connection to a specific place provides a profound source of meaning, belonging and sustenance. Simply put, this place is one’s home. Place attachment and sense of place are often interchangeable. Place identity considers attachment in terms of emotional or symbolic meanings, as internalized and integrated into a person’s identity.

Much like other aspects of attachment that we explore with clients struggling with any number of issues, place attachment is seated in a deep part of ourselves that connects to ancestry, early recollections, sensory experiences and story. It relates to the larger question of Who am I? — a question that can be partly answered through place identity.

In North Dakota, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe recently engaged in a battle of culture and human rights against the Dakota Access pipeline, the construction of which threatens tribal land and clean water. Many have called Standing Rock a new civil rights moment encompassing a convergence of environmental rights, human rights and cultural rights. Tribal representatives from all over North America joined the Standing Rock Sioux in an empathic and familiar stand to protect culture and identity.

Journalist Rebecca Solnit, writing for The Guardian, spent time in Standing Rock to cover the movement. She gave eloquent voice to the tribe’s heartfelt commitment and place attachment: “Victors like to forget how they got their spoils, but the despoiled have long memories.” With a growing sense of awe, Solnit observed how the tribe relied on peace and prayer, valued humility and revered their ancestors.

Place matters as an integral piece of cultural, historical, existential and personal identity. The stories of people and their places, whether in Louisiana or the Dakotas, are as important as any other attachment issues or identity concerns that we consider when we counsel our clients.

Environmental justice as social justice

Issues that impact the planet also directly impact the people who live on the planet. At times, it seems as though conversations around environmental justice and social justice are happening with equal intensity and depth of passion but are taking place in two separate silos.

As the climate changes, families, communities and lives are affected. And as is true with so many other aspects of change, our most vulnerable neighbors — individuals with low incomes, communities of color, immigrants, indigenous peoples, children, pregnant women, older adults, people with disabilities and people with chronic medical conditions — are most subject to the impact. Understanding the issue and engaging in advocacy on behalf of the climate is also advocating on behalf of the people whose lives depend on a healthy planet. The global climate is interconnected — environmentally, psychologically, socially, culturally
and spiritually.

In 2010, the Council on Social Work Education declared sustainability and climate issues to be the social justice issues of the new century. In 2011, the American Psychological Association released a report highlighting the broad contributions that psychology could make, with continued research and advocacy, to understanding the power of the human-environment relationship. It included a call to action for scholars to bridge the gap between the science of environmental issues and the study and practice of psychology.

Our moral obligation

In a 2016 article on the ecoAffect website, psychiatrist Lise Van Susteren posed a challenge to those in the helping professions. She noted that we work with people who are faced with fears, traumas, unexpected changes and crises. We help our clients navigate this difficult terrain even as we view larger societal issues through a social justice and advocacy lens. She wonders, then, if we can ethically turn a blind eye to the approaching crises that our changing planet will bring. Do we have a duty to warn, to protect, or, at a minimum, to acknowledge that the changing climate is a significant variable in mental health?

The American Counseling Association has a long-established relationship with the American Red Cross as a model for and partner in disaster response. In 2002, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies established the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre. This organization supports national Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in their work to reduce loss of life and damage to livelihoods from climate change and extreme weather events. Goals include implementing information and education activities about climate change and extreme weather events; supporting the development of climate-adaptation activities and disaster-risk-reduction programs; and bringing concerns about the impacts of climate change on vulnerable people to the broader public. Considering the global movement toward acknowledging climate change in disaster response and preparedness, we believe it is vitally important for ACA to expand its vision for the future of disaster response.

As professionals who believe that all individuals deserve basic human and civil rights, we need to challenge ourselves to see the climate crisis as an imminent threat. Counselors are positioned to bring a trauma-informed and resilience-based perspective to the front lines of crisis and disaster response. We must recognize that environmental injustices and environmental racism — such as what we have witnessed in Flint, Michigan; with Hurricane Katrina; with the 2016 Louisiana floods; and with the standoff in Standing Rock — are enormous social justice issues.

Given our knowledge and skills as counselors, we have both the responsibility and the potential to contribute to environmental advocacy, disaster response and preparedness for building resilient communities. It is our basic duty to promote and deepen human beings’ most fundamental attachment to our natural world.




Debbie C. Sturm is an associate professor at James Madison University in Virginia and a licensed professional counselor with more than 10 years’ experience in counseling survivors of trauma and community violence. She engages in research related to nature connectedness and mental health, sense of place, the psychology of sustainability and environmental justice as social justice. Contact her at sturmdc@jmu.edu.

Lennis G. Echterling is a professor at James Madison University with more than 30 years’ experience in crisis and disaster response, supporting first responders, and international stabilization and recovery in war-torn regions. As a doting grandfather to two young boys, he believes it is important that we give greater consideration to the health of our planet and our children.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

Counseling Today reviews unsolicited articles written by American Counseling Association members. To access writing guidelines and tips for having your article accepted for publication, go to ct.counseling.org/feedback.




Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Ask your doctor if nature is right for you

By Bethany Bray January 3, 2017

Happy-looking people take a walk in the woods as small-print disclosures scroll across the bottom of the TV screen and a soothing voiceover explains possible side effects. As the scene closes, one of the actors looks squarely into the camera and says, “Ask your doctor if nature is right for you.”

The tongue-in-cheek NatureRx video campaign has the look and feel of the prescription drug commercials that inundate television in the U.S. The difference, however, is that they are “selling” something that is widely available and has proved to benefit mental health and overall well-being — without prescription drugs.

NatureRx is the brainchild of Justin Bogardus, a filmmaker and licensed professional counselor candidate in Boulder, Colorado. Everything seems to have a marketing campaign in this modern age, he says, so why not nature?

Rather than relying on a heavy-handed “you should” directive, the films use humor and a witty message to emphasize the benefits of getting outside, Bogardus explains.

“As a trained counselor myself [but primarily a filmmaker now],” he says, “I really wanted to create a message like NatureRx because I resonated with it so much personally. … I think people really resonate with the message and the humor because it’s fun, funny and inspiring to remember the little things that were always there, but sometimes we forgot about them, like nature and getting outdoors.”

NatureRx “commercials” have been screened at film festivals and shared widely online since the

Justin Bogardus, NatureRx filmmaker (Courtesy photo)

first video was released in the summer of 2015.

Bogardus has a film degree from Vassar College and has worked as an editor, writer and producer for several documentaries on wrongful conviction/incarceration. In 2013, he completed a master’s degree in Buddhist psychology and contemplative psychotherapy from Naropa University in Boulder. Although he primarily devotes his time to independent filmmaking and speaking engagements, he does occasionally see clients, lead group therapy and teach Buddhist psychology at Naropa.



Is NatureRx right for you? CT Online contacted Bogardus to learn more about the campaign and its connection to counseling and mental health.


The holiday season can be especially tough for people with anxiety and other mental health issues. At the same time, the weather is getting colder and the days are shorter and darker. Do you have suggestions on how to find “NatureRx” throughout the winter?

Research shows [that] as little as 10 minutes outdoors can reset the nervous system, especially if you can be mindful and present with nature for those 10 minutes. … Taking a walk and tasting the cold brisk air makes a big difference even in small doses.

I get asked about winter a lot in regards to NatureRx, and I love that question. I love winter. The outdoors seems particularly tranquil and quiet to me in the winter. There are no studies about this, but I actually think the positive impact of nature on our minds happens faster in winter. Something about a little temperature change and a change of scenery from the indoors in winter really resets my mind and body pretty quickly. Yes, it can be a little harder to motivate putting on jackets and boots when it’s cold and the sun sets so much earlier, but the colder air is more refreshing, I think. I also like to remember that our bodies were built for the outdoors, including the cold weather.

I also love this thing from Denmark called hygge (pronounced hoo-ga). Everyone knows how cold and dark winters in Denmark are, and the Danes have come up with a great word and lifestyle to make the most of it. It’s basically the idea of cultivating coziness, slowing down and taking in simple pleasures. It’s like NatureRx for the indoors.

I like that with the idea of hygge, you bring an overall sense of coziness to the winter and holiday season, which you bring with you both outdoors and inside. A 10-minute walk in the cold air, all bundled up in all the scarves, mittens, hats, puffy coats — whatever makes being outside a slowing down and cozy experience too. How great is a warm fire and hot cup of tea after a short dose of outdoors? How cozy and relaxing is that? So yes, back and forth with outdoors and the family, back and forth with getting warm and then getting refreshed outside with an overall sense of hygge. That’s a perfect recipe for the holiday season I think.

During holiday get-togethers, people and families can go stir crazy if no one is getting outside. Togetherness is great, but too much togetherness in an enclosed space is well … cue the commercial … “are you feeling tired, irritable [and] stressed out?” Who isn’t feeling tired, irritable and stressed out at some point during the holiday season? That’s the cue for a dose of nature, even a microdose. It really works and so does hygge.

NatureRx has been a lifesaver for me during the holidays. Now it’s fun because as I get outdoors for short breaks during each holiday season, the rest of my family has started doing it too. … Maybe they saw how happy and relaxed I was after a little time outside.


What do you want professional counselors to know about nature’s connection to wellness and mental health?

I like to remind even the most self-described “I would rather do anything besides camping” indoor people that it’s all about discovering the dose of nature that works for you. [Moving] more plants inside or gardening, or having a great view of the outdoors from a window, whatever brings nature into your life in a way you like, I think, can support our well-being [and] slowing down, which is incredibly helpful, especially in [the] busy, screen-time, information-overload, never-stop-world so many of us are meeting these days.

I once met this great group counselor in New York City — a real expert and guru of counseling. I was telling him how I like to get outside and to meditate. He told me, “Getting outside and meditation are like rocket fuel for healing in therapy.” I think that’s the best way to put it. NatureRx helps on its own and in conjunction with all the others things we need for rich, healthy lives.

Yes, there’s a new big study from big-name institutions almost every week it seems about the positive impacts of the outdoors and nature on all kinds of well-being metrics, especially mental health for all kinds of symptoms and challenges [and] for healthy development of kids. But really I think NatureRx got millions of views and has made such a splash because on a deep intuitive level, we already know this. The healing impact of nature is a story as old as humanity itself.

Being outside in nature supports our well-being. Of course it’s not a panacea. It’s not a cure-all. But who knows? For some people it might be. I think it’s like good rest. It’s something we all know on some level is needed and super helpful for whatever life throws at us. And like good rest, you don’t want to overdo it or go outside with too much of an agenda, expecting nature to fix everything. Nature doesn’t work that way, but if you can hang back a little in nature, let its beneficial impact come to you more and more … it works! I could go on and on. The magic always happens eventually.

Since the dawn of human civilization, we [have] lived increasingly in busier spaces. Every culture and every civilization from every time period has countless stories about the need for nature — a respite and restorative space to not only heal, but find your truer and deeper voice in. NatureRx is that same story, updated for our times. I think nature is a timeless space, a great place to discover your authenticity and who we really are — outside the din and distraction of culture and civilization.


Do you have suggestions for how counselors can bring nature into their work with clients?

Well, first have clients watch the NatureRx commercial. Self-promotion? Maybe, but really it’s true. First-time viewers love the humor and then love sharing the videos with other folks — it just resonates with so many people. That was certainly part of the goal with NatureRx and the humor behind it. I didn’t want to prescribe nature and getting outside as a “should.” I wanted to playfully invite people to look at getting outside and nature from a fresh perspective, and of course spoofing a prescription commercial was the way to do that.

So for counselors of all kinds, I say … find ways to invite people into thinking about nature and getting outdoors as a fun, healing space rather than imposing the idea on them in subtle or not so subtle ways. I think [it’s] always good to start with some curiosity, asking people questions about nature, [such as] plants or places they may like. It seems almost everyone has some memory or some animal or plant or some outdoor smell or nature activity they already remember or enjoy. I think that’s a great starting point. Later on, it can also be good to offer some of the evidence-based information about getting outdoors, which some people like to know because it can increase their time outdoors and their perceived benefit from nature. But some folks don’t even need that didactic information.

I’m amazed how many folks already have some NatureRx practice in their life without even realizing they’re intuitively getting benefit from nature — even smokers I meet. Many smokers talk about enjoying the break outdoors as part of their smoking habit. It’s interesting how many, when they quit, still like to get outside, but this time just for a short walk or to sip a cup of tea or something. What they didn’t think about was how smoking was a tool to take a break outside, even in the cold. Without the cigarette, they still get to benefit from getting outside with a lot more enjoyment.

I met a woman I’ll never forget who liked to check the weather for the sunset time. She rarely ever watched the sunset. She just found herself always checking in on what time the sun would set. She didn’t care too much for camping or the outdoors; she would never describe herself as a nature person. I worked with her some, and we talked about what she liked about the sunset and knowing the rhythms of the sunrise and sunset from season to season. Before long, she told me she had started to actually take the time, even if it was just five minutes toward the end of the workday, to not only check the sunset time, but take some time outside to really enjoy watching the sunset. Simple. Relaxing. Restorative. I’m pretty sure she still does that today and loves it.


Who is your target audience for the NatureRx campaign?

When first creating the NatureRx commercials and the NatureRx movement online, I intended to target millennials with the humor and the particular disconnection millennials might feel around nature. It’s the first generation that may not have been exposed to the outdoors readily as kids and, consequently, that millennial generation — which I’m a part of, but on the older side — may feel that lack of nature more acutely.

I grew up in the city myself. I was lucky to have a father who took the time to take us to national parks and [go] hiking. That’s probably how I first fell in love with nature. But I had a lot of city friends who didn’t get those experiences growing up, and I always imagined those lifelong friends and what might appeal to them when crafting this message and writing NatureRx content. The millennial generation is so used to getting tons of information on their laptops and phones all the time, so certainly it was an important goal of mine in creating NatureRx to craft a fun-filled message that could connect with them in short form and on social media in a way that they could really enjoy and consider.

It’s food for thought for any age — even kids love our G rated versions of the commercials. It’s something we can all relate to.


Do you think medical and mental health professionals sometimes overlook nature and its therapeutic benefits?

Yes and no. I think the medical and mental health professions as a whole have some real ambivalence about nature and the outdoors. [But] I think a lot of that’s changing now as we see the alternative — being inside, disconnected and sequestered, and how that is having terrible health and well-being impacts on our bodies and minds. I think there’s a big shift in medical and mental health professionals around embracing the benefits of nature and getting outdoors because of this.

I think all this research coming out about the benefits of getting outdoors reveals this movement and paradigm shift. For the last few decades in medicine, culture and in parenting, the view was [that] getting outside and in nature is how you get sick or hurt. I think lots of folks are seeing now how wrong that view is.


In a nutshell, what inspired you to start the NatureRx campaign?

Nutshell? I love nutshells. That was a big inspiration. That and climate change. I wondered, how could I speak about the human relationship to nature in a way that connected with people personally, whether they believe in human-caused climate change or not? I don’t say anything about climate change in the commercials, but I think it’s in there nonetheless.

I was inspired by how nature is something I need in my personal life. It’s helped me in countless ways, and nature is something we all need as a valuable space for all earthly inhabitants. I hoped the message and humor would convey that — both the personal and universal value of nature. It was a way of giving back for me.


What do you want professional counselors to know about why your campaign is needed?

As a trained counselor myself, I like this phrase: “Of all the paths you take in life, make sure some of them are dirt.” For professional counselors, I think NatureRx is needed because there are many paths to healing and recovery for clients. I think it’s also true to make sure some of those paths are made of dirt. A dirt path in the woods is the real-life metaphor we can experience at anytime. It’s a great ready-at-hand place where we can see that natural healing isn’t like a manicured superhighway to health. There are twists and turns.

Getting outside reminds me of my most human qualities. It reminds me that I have a body that likes to be in nature, to look at nature and be healthy. It reminds me to take time to just be. I think that’s the energizing trail mix we all need on whatever path we’re taking in life. That’s the need I hope NatureRx fills. It’s an empowering message about how you can take back your life at any point by simply stepping outdoors. I think healing and counseling works well when people feel empowered with real solutions, and getting outdoors is most certainly one of those solutions.





Find out more about NatureRx and watch Bogardus’ TED Talk at Nature-Rx.org

The NatureRx “commercials” are available there as well as on the YouTube channel: bit.ly/2h1MCZp





Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org


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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.