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The Source

Human Nature

May 14, 2019

Credit: Robert Reynolds

Lewis & Clark’s Ecopsychology Program draws on the healing power of the outdoors to enhance mental health.

Before Avecena Hollingsworth decided to pursue her master’s degree in professional mental health counseling at Lewis & Clark, she was hiking the Pacific Crest Trail and had a revelation as she traveled between desert and mountains.

“I got curious about how life formed and survived all those different environments. I was fascinated by everything, from the dirt I stood on to the unique cloud formations of the Sierra Nevada. My perspective as a human expanded. I wanted to bring this experience to others.”

Hollingsworth chose to enroll in Lewis & Clark’s Graduate School of Education and Counseling, in part, due to its distinctive Ecopsychology Certificate Program. Ecopsychology is a transdisciplinary field that explores psychological issues in the context of our relationships with the natural world. It draws on ideas from the social sciences, health care, public health, and the humanities.

“The Ecopsychology Program has become another home for me and other like-minded people studying counseling,” says Hollingsworth. “It provides us with concepts not ordinarily thought of or talked about.”

Ecopsychology Origins

Humans have long recognized the healing power of nature. But ecopsychology as a field really coalesced in the last decades of the 20th century, buoyed by the growth of various conservation and environmental movements.

At Lewis & Clark’s graduate school, course offerings related to the specialty began to appear around the mid-2000s. In 2011, Thomas Doherty, a former L&C instructor who helped found both the program and the Ecopsychology journal, gained approval for the certificate program. “The ecopsychology certificate is a particularly good fit for Lewis & Clark’s efforts in sustainability and environmental issues,” says Teresa McDowell, professor and chair of counseling psychology. “We are a top-rated ‘green’ school, and we’re located in a region that is a world leader in ecological living and sustainability innovation.”

The ecopsychology certificate is open to graduate students in any of Lewis & Clark’s counseling programs (e.g., professional mental health counseling, school psychology, or marriage, couple, and family therapy) as well as current practitioners. “The certificate complements Lewis & Clark’s existing programs by providing students the opportunity to explore how to integrate concerns about the environment, environmental justice, and the use of nature-based counseling methods into their practice,” McDowell says.

Ecotherapy: Theory in Action

Patricia Hasbach is codirector of Lewis & Clark’s ecopsychology program, along with Carol Doyle, associate professor of counseling psychology. Hasbach is a clinical psychotherapist in private practice. An author of two books and numerous journal articles, she also consults extensively with hospitals, schools, architectural design firms, businesses, and environmental activists.

Hasbach says it’s important to differentiate between ecopsychology and ecotherapy. The former provides the theoretical foundation for understanding the human-nature relationship, while the latter pertains to the application of those theories through nature-based practices in a therapeutic setting.

Traditional therapy typically stops at the urban boundary and focuses on human-to-human relationships. Ecotherapy includes all of what traditional therapy focuses on—and adds the ecological dimension, including the relationship the client has or doesn’t have with the natural world.” Patricia HasbachCodirector of Lewis & Clark’s Ecopsychology Program

“Traditional therapy typically stops at the urban boundary and focuses on human-to-human relationships. Ecotherapy includes all of what traditional therapy focuses on—and adds the ecological dimension, including the relationship the client has or doesn’t have with the natural world. It invites nature into the therapeutic process … it’s one of many tools a therapist may have in their toolbox,” says Hasbach. “I certainly don’t take every client outdoors, but ecotherapy methods offer another level of work, a deepening of experience, and an expansion of focus in therapy.”

Down to Earth

Early in the program, Lewis & Clark counseling students experience the unique focus of ecotherapy firsthand. All students in the Ecopsychology Certificate Program take part in a week-long field-based Wilderness and Adventure Therapy immersion course, which takes them to several Oregon locations around Mount Hood National Forest and the Clackamas River. The course, led by Mitch Bacon MA ’13, a practicing ecotherapist, takes approximately 8 to 10 students through a variety of educational and experiential exercises, such as a ropes course, whitewater rafting, and an overnight solo camping experience.

“Wilderness therapy takes an outdoor adventure and applies it to real life,” says Bacon. “The course answers the question of ‘How do you integrate an intense, powerful wilderness experience into your day-to-day life?’ It also teaches team-building approaches useful in classrooms, group therapy, and other environments.”

In traditional therapy, therapist and client often meet in an office setting. But during a wilderness experience, therapist and client interact in a much more active, vital way. The experience offers some clients a greater openness to new experiences and a more direct route to the exploration of fundamental aspects of self.

The course is a challenge on many levels, says school psychology student Christina Fonts. “It pushes your boundaries and fears. It’s important to go through the experience of wilderness therapy—you need to know what it feels like to confront your feelings in nature.”

‘Nature Prescriptions’

In addition to wilderness therapy, practicing ecotherapists have other ways to include the natural world in the therapeutic process. They might hold a session outdoors and employ “walk-and-talk therapy” or just sit outdoors for the session. Ecotherapists also bring nature into the office setting through nature art, natural colors and textures, natural objects, water features, and plants.

In some cases, exposure to nature begins early in the therapist-client relationship. In one of her classes, Hasbach has students practice an intake interview with a fellow student as they walk together outdoors. Walking side by side, rather than having a face-to-face encounter, may be especially helpful to adolescents, those with anxiety, or others who feel uncomfortable sitting still in an office setting.

“Findings show walking outside is quite different than the therapeutic process indoors,” says Hasbach. “Moving our bodies is important, and being in fresh air is important. When we extract ourselves from the classroom or office, we’re moving through a setting bigger than ourselves.”

In her own work as a therapist, Hasbach often writes “nature prescriptions” for her clients. These have included encouraging a disconnected couple to go snowshoeing together or asking a client with depression to spend time in a garden.

She has found that almost any therapeutic issue can be addressed in work that involves nature-based practices. “As humans, we are looking for a sense of belonging,” Hasbach says. “When people are in pain, or dealing with grief, loss or trauma, they are looking for grounding. We all can benefit from a conscious connection to the natural world.”

Lewis & Clark’s Ecopsychology Program also offers an elective titled The Animal-Human Bond, taught by Pilar Hernández-Wolfe, associate professor of counseling psychology. “Ecopsychology focuses on the synergy between human well-being and the health of the planet,” she says. “Relationships with nonhumans can be at the center of this connection.” For example, equine therapy—which includes grooming, feeding, or leading a horse through obstacles—has been shown to help people with post-traumatic stress disorder. Animals can sometimes serve as a “clinical bridge” for those who are not seeing results with conventional therapeutic approaches.

Recent studies show that kids in the United States spend an average of 7.5 hours each day interacting with a screen, and only four to seven minutes outdoors in free play. Whether you’re 26 or 66, it’s difficult to feel like you’re keeping up with our chaotic, digital world.

Blue Skies, Not Blue Screens

Ecotherapy is often useful for treating conditions specific to the modern era. In recent decades, many people have found themselves increasingly removed from the natural world. Recent studies show that kids in the United States spend an average of 7.5 hours each day interacting with a screen, and only four to seven minutes outdoors in free play. Whether you’re 26 or 66, it’s difficult to feel like you’re keeping up with our chaotic, digital world.

Hasbach thinks ecotherapy has an important role to play in helping restore a more balanced perspective. In one of her homework assignments, she asks clients to take a few days or a week to log all their technology activity: the type of device, what they’re doing, and how much time they’re spending on it. During that same period, they also record how much time they’re interacting with the natural world. Together, therapist and client discuss the results. “It’s all about raising awareness,” Hasbach says.

Christina Fonts, who is studying to be a school psychologist, intends to implement ecopsychology principles around attention restoration theory, which hypothesizes that the ability to concentrate can be brought back by exposure to nature. “This could be helpful for kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder,” she explains.

In our technology-focused environment, people might feel like they need permission to experience nature. “Our phones and screens are so addictive,” says Alissa Goddard, a student in the Marriage, Couple, and Family Therapy Program. “We weren’t developed for this kind of stimulation. We are still adjusting to it.” Ecotherapy can provide ways for clients to reconnect with the habitats our species evolved in, often producing healing results.

Global Consequences

Ecopsychology principles apply both locally and globally. The discipline, by definition, is poised to help us manage the environmental trauma we’re seeing as our natural world undergoes climate change.

Program Details

The Ecopsychology Certificate Program is geared toward graduate students or current licensed therapists who would like to incorporate ecopsychology principles into their work. All courses are graduate-level, degree-applicable, and license- eligible.

Semester hours: 8

Courses offered: On campus only

Courses include: Introduction to Ecopsychology; Theoretical and Empirical Basis of Ecopsychology; and Ecotherapy and Applied Ecopsychology. Electives include The Human-Animal Bond and Space, Place, and Environmental Justice.

Fun fact: The fall semester’s Introduction to Ecopsychology course has proven so popular that L&C has added a second opportunity to take it during the spring.

More information

“There’s a growing population who have been negatively impacted by how the climate is changing,” says Bacon. “They could benefit from a counselor or therapist who understands how trauma surrounds that experience.”

For example, ecotherapy is being used to address the eco-anxiety that stems from catastrophic natural disasters such as hurricanes or floods—or even the gradual changes we’re seeing in the loss of natural environments. It could also aid climate change refugees, people who have been forced to leave their homes due to the impact of global warming.

What’s Next

Over the past 20 years, the field of ecopsychology and the practice of ecotherapy have grown and matured. Hasbach sees a bright future ahead. “I think ecopsychology will influence education through place-based education initiatives, outdoor classrooms, and school gardens. I see it influencing the built environment through the design of health care facilities, workplace design, and city planning. Ecotherapy will have an important role in addressing the psychological and social issues related to climate change.”

Lewis & Clark will remain responsive to these trends. Future plans for the program may include new electives as well as internships that incorporate ecotherapy options.

At its most fundamental level, the program will continue to embrace a holistic viewpoint: nature has the ability to nurture us, but we also have the ability—and responsibility—to nurture nature through environmental awareness and activism. “Ecopsychology is not only a framework for professional practice,” says Carol Doyle, codirector of the ecopsychology program. “It’s a framework for how to see the world.”

Carin Moonin is a freelance writer in Portland.