If you’ve spent much time studying ecopsychology, you’ll find that the majority of people involved in it tend to be white, middle class, college-educated and generally able-bodied. (Yes, I fit that pretty well myself.) And the people who most often seek out ecotherapy as clients frequently come from that demographic as well.
If ecopsychology is really going to succeed as a pathway to helping people be more in touch with nature, then ecopsychologists need to find ways to offer knowledge and skills beyond the usual suspects, so to speak. There are a few factors in particular that I’d like to go over in brief; one article is far from sufficient to hold all the solutions, but I can at least get you, my dear readers, thinking more about the situation at hand.
It would be great if we actually could all be racially colorblind. Unfortunately, the reality is that American society (and elsewhere, but I’m going to stick with my home territory for now) is stacked against racial minorities on a systemic as well as frequently personal level. So the first step for white ecopsychologists is to accept that minority experiences, both in human society and in nature, may be very different from our own.
The way many white people approach nature is often different from how people of color may approach it, both due to historical oppression and cultural differences. For example, African-Americans only make up about 7% of visitors to national parks each year, and for many black people stomping around in the woods just isn’t particularly appealing. But that doesn’t mean nobody’s going outside. What I may assume is a fine time outdoors–heading off into a backcountry trail full of mosquitoes and steep drop-offs–doesn’t appeal to a lot of people, regardless of race. A lot of people are happier taking in nature a little closer to home, having a barbecue at a local park, or heading out fishing at a nearby lake or stream, and African-Americans are no exception. The same goes for a lot of Latino people, though there are outreach efforts to help them enjoy the national parks more, too. Obviously everyone’s experience is going to be different, but that makes it even more crucial for us to listen to clients about their personal experiences with nature, as well as their hesitations.
Regarding ecopsychology, how can we make it more available to people of color? I’ve seen several studies on the physiological and psychological effects of nature on people, but who were those people? Were they a largely self-selected sample who wanted to go outdoors anyway? Is anyone doing research specifically on the benefits of nature for minorities? What about outreach to minority communities to find out how they may benefit from ecopsychology as well as what perspectives they have to offer on how we can make ecopsychology even better? I’d love to hear more about any efforts in this direction.
“Nature is free therapy!” Well, sort of. When we talk about “prescribing” nature to clients we’re making a lot of assumptions–that they have a safe greenspace nearby, or that they’re able to drive or otherwise get to a more suitable location. If we tell someone to go take a hike on a Saturday afternoon, they have to be able to get to the trailhead, and they need to have comfortable clothing and shoes to walk for a few miles. They also need to be able to have water and food for them and anyone they take with them, such as their children. They may not have the funds to buy the often-cited Ten Essentials of Hiking.
Moreover, ecotherapy sessions cost money. Group and individual sessions can be beyond someone’s means, especially if they don’t have health insurance or if you’re unable to take their insurance. And a weekend retreat costing hundreds or even thousands of dollars is generally accessible only to people with a decent amount of spare cash, even if you offer discounts for financial hardships. Add in the potential for taking time off of work to make time for such an event (since many lower-income people work weekends) and the cost goes even further out of reach.
Consider that impoverished communities are disproportionately more likely to be affected by environmental degradation. Aside from the inherent injustice of the situation, being in polluted, unsafe areas adds to stress and other negative factors affecting mental and physical health. While ecotherapists obviously need to be able to pay their own bills like office rent, continuing education and student loans, we are contributing to injustice if we only make ourselves available to those making a middle-class income.
Part of why I started Watershed Ecotherapy was to offer ecopsychology and ecotherapy resources free of charge to anyone with internet access. How else can we make ecopsychology accessible to low-income people, especially those who may be working two or three jobs and not have a lot of extra time?
On a similar note, what do we do for clients who may live in deeply urban areas where greenspace is rare or nonexistent? While some cities are working to plant trees and create community gardens and parks, this is not a universal effort. Moreover, in many urban areas parks are the places where people go to sell drugs or engage in other illegal activity, and clients may not feel safe going there to meditate quietly alone.
There’s a growing body of research showing that even looking at images and films of nature can have some positive effects on a person, though not as much as the real deal. This may be an option for people who are unable to get to safe greenspaces on a regular basis. If they have or are able to get pets or houseplants (succulents are especially low-maintenance) these can help bring nature to them.
What are other ways to help clients who can’t just step outside into a beautiful garden or city park?
Pretty much every ecopsychologist and ecotherapist I’ve met has been an avid outdoorsperson, engaging in sometimes very intense physical activities outdoors like whitewater rafting, rock climbing or multi-day backpacking trips. The reality is that a lot of people simply aren’t physically able to do the same. Some people aren’t in sufficient physical condition for more than a very light walk; others have physical disabilities that can make outdoor activity difficult. We also need to consider people who may be partially or completely bedridden, whether in nursing homes or their own houses or apartments.
I don’t yet know any ecotherapists who do house calls, though feel free to take the idea if it appeals to you. For clients who can make it to your office, keep their level of physical ability in mind when brainstorming nature access ideas with them. I recognize that many ecotherapists have offices in buildings owned by someone else, but if you do have the opportunity to contribute to or create a greenspace near your office, you might see if clients can use it throughout the week when they’re not in session, or at least make use of it during sessions.
How else can we make direct contact with nature available for those with physical limitations?
It’s not just physical limitations that can make ecotherapy more challenging for some people. I once taught a workshop on ecotherapy and accessibility at a convention, and one of the attendees talked about how her agoraphobia made it really difficult to do much of anything outdoors. We finally found a great solution: she felt safe enough while in a car, so she could just take in her nature with the view through the windshield!
Agoraphobia and more severe cases of some anxiety disorders can make the idea of leaving one’s home pretty daunting. This is another case where stand-ins for nature like videos and pictures can be helpful, as well as in-home nature like pets and house plants. Additionally, for clients who are willing and able, the interaction with a pet or a terrarium full of plants can have additional mental health benefits beyond simply being there.
What are other ways we can bring nature to those who may be reluctant to go outside due to mental health concerns? Are there ways to use ecopsychology to help them gradually feel more comfortable going out into outdoor spaces?
The vast majority of the literature on ecopsychology is in English. I’ll admit I contribute to this; despite taking several semesters of Spanish in college it refused to stick, and I haven’t had the opportunity to try again just yet. As I mentioned above in the section in race, Latinos are often underserved when it comes to nature-based services. And for many non-native English speakers it’s easier to talk about emotional topics in their first language.
One of the most obvious answers, of course, is to learn more languages so that you can work with clients who may have difficulties with English. For those unable to do so, look into the services of a translator, at least for retreats, if you know you have a non-native English speaker attending. Yes, they will want to be paid, but you may be able to work that into your budget. Or you may see if they’re willing to offer their services in exchange for free admission to the event, and make sure they get the same materials and benefits as everyone else. Keep in mind that there are also sign language interpreters, so you may be able to make your services accessible to the Deaf community.
Also, if anyone is interested in translating material from this site into other languages for use with clients, please let me know; I would love to be able to offer options beyond English.
These are just a few of the accessibility considerations ecopsychologists and ecotherapists should keep in mind. There are a lot of people out there who can benefit from our work; let’s find more ways to make sure they can make use of it!