What's an eco-therapist?

Eco-therapists delve into the relationships between humans and the environment.
Eco-therapists delve into the relationships between humans and the environment.

­Today we have so many things to fret about, from our declining savings accounts to the latest terrorist threat. Turn to the news on any given night and you'll get a big dose of worry, served up in three-minute segments. In recent years, that news has focused increasingly on environmental woes, and with regular stories about shrinking polar ice caps, smog-filled skies, and a dwindling global food supply, it's no wonder our collective anxiety level has risen to epic heights.

People are worrying themselves sick -- literally -- over the looming threat of environmental doom. The phenomenon is called "eco-anxiety," and those who have it experience real symptoms, such as panic attacks, sleeplessness, loss of appetite and depression. "There seems to be a public acceptance of the fact that climate change is occurring," says Susan Clayton, Ph.D., Whitmore-Williams Professor of Psychology and Chair of Environmental Studies at the College of Wooster in Ohio. "There's a feeling of lack of control, and there's a certain amount of anxiety surrounding it."

To help people cope with their eco-anxiety, a new branch of mental health care has emerged. It's called eco-psychology, and it blends the concepts of ecology and psychology. The idea is that our modern transportation, climate-controlled homes and screen-based entertainment have created a major disconnect between humans and the natural world. "We spend too much time with the television, video games or computers," explains Carla Royal, M.Ed., an eco-therapist based in central Vermont. "I think we lose our sense of oneness, our sense of connection. And then I think we may begin to feel more isolated, more alone." That disconnect not only stresses us out, but it also makes us less perceptive and sensitive to the needs of nature, which in turn stresses out the Earth.

­Eco-psychology is still an emerging field, but it's growing and gaining more attention. The American Psychological Association doesn't have a formal position on eco-psychology, but says it's keeping a close eye on the field [source: Kim Mills, APA].

No formal training is required to become an eco-therapist, but you do need to be licensed as a therapist in most states to practice. Schools like Naropa University in Boulder, Colo., and Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore., are beginning to incorporate eco-psychology courses and degree programs into their curriculum. These programs teach prospective eco-therapists how to better understand the connection between humans and their world.