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.


What Does an Eco-therapist Do?

Some eco-therapists prescribe something as simple as getting out and walking to ease eco-anxiety.
Some eco-therapists prescribe something as simple as getting out and walking to ease eco-anxiety.
­AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

­Eco-therapists not only focus on human-to-human relationships like traditional therapists, they also delve into the relationships between humans and the environment. That means you're more likely to get a sympathetic ear if you confide in your therapist that the plight of the polar bears is keeping you awake at night. "There are a lot of mainstream therapists who […] don't think it's a big deal or don't understand why people might be frightened. My clients say it's so good to have somebody who says, 'Yeah, these things are really happening,'" Carla Royal says.

While an eco-therapist addresses your relationship with your alcoholic father or emotionally distant stepmother, he or she will also find out what kind of relationship you have with the natural world. Are you stuck in an office all day? Do you get outside much? Are you doing anything to help the environment?


Royal has actually taken the therapy session outside for many of her clients. "We notice the birds, the animals, the trees, the wind. I help people slow down and pay attention to those kinds of things," she says.

To combat eco-anxiety, eco-therapists may prescribe something as simple as getting outside for a walk every day. There is some real scientific evidence to back up that recommendation. Many studies have found a benefit from being outside, including one British report, which found that walking in the park or countryside decreases depression [source: Medical News Today].

To help patients who are overwhelmed with worry about an impending environmental catastrophe, eco-therapists often recommend making changes -- however small-- in their lives. "I try to focus on one behavior that I think I can do, like remembering my reusable bags when I go to the grocery store," Clayton says. Turning off the lights when you leave a room, taking shorter showers or walking instead of driving your kids to school can help ease your fears by making you feel more like part of the solution than part of the problem.

The typical eco-therapy session can run as much as $250 an hour, although many eco-therapists follow more traditional therapy rates (which vary by location) [source: MSNBC]. Health insurance sometimes will cover the cost if the therapist is licensed.

Learn more about eco-therapy and eco-anxiety on the next page.


Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • Davis, John, Ph.D. "Overview of Ecopsychology." http://clem.mscd.edu/~davisj/ep/ecopsy.html.
  • "Eco-psychology with Theodore Roszak." http://www.williamjames.com/transcripts/roszak.htm.
  • Interview with Carla Royal, M.Ed., eco-therapist based in central Vermont, Jan. 27, 2009.
  • Interview with Susan Clayton, Ph.D., Whitmore-Williams Professor of Psychology and Chair of Environmental Studies, College of Wooster in Ohio, Jan. 23, 2009.
  • Living on Earth. "What, Me Worry?" http://www.loe.org/shows/segments.htm?programID=06-P13-00037&segmentID=8.
  • Medical News Today. "Green Walking Beats the Blues, New Study Recommends Ecotherapy for Depression." May 14, 2007. http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/70852.php.
  • Mind. "Ecotherapy: The green agenda for mental health." May 2007. http://www.cchr.org/media/pdfs/Executive_Summary.pdf.
  • Nobel, Justin. "Worried about environmental doom? Go see an eco-therapist." Columbia News Service, March 13, 2007. http://jscms.jrn.columbia.edu/cns/2007-03-13/nobel-ecoanxiety.
  • Pine Mountain Institute. "Ecopsychology." http://www.pinemountaininstitute.com/ecopsychology.htm.
  • Statement from Kim Mills, Associate Executive Director, Public and Member Communications, American Psychological Association, Jan. 22, 2009.