I was privileged to participate in an eco-psychology workshop recently, with mostly mental health professionals. It has inspired me to want to explore two premises more fully.
The first is often discussed; the healing power of nature.
Many of the young people who come to us do suffer mental health issues. The combination of adolescence and hormones, difficult home situations, social isolation, heightened anxiety and sometimes poor processing, makes it almost inevitable that depression, anxiety and other mood disorders will manifest somehow.
There is increasing research and acceptance that spending time in nature improves physical and mental well being. I have observed it in myself. If I don’t spend time regularly and purposefully engaged outside, my outlook deteriorates, I feel more irritable and anxious.
For many of the young people, their day in the woods is a chance to decompress, reduce demands, process thoughts and feelings, talk through worries with trusted adults, be playful and child like without fear of embarrassment and develop a connection with a natural place.
On the eco-psychology workshop, we paired up to talk about a natural place that had been important to us. My partner described a meadow she had played in. She had noticed many details and imagined many more. It was a place full of rich memories which had stimulated her creativity and instilled a love of nature. She suspected it hadn't really been as magnificent as she remembered but to her it was a kingdom. I talked about a mountainside I stayed in for several months in the Andes that had filled me with awe and wonder. I had been lucky enough to experience many dramatic landscapes as a child but I still continue to feel heart palpitating astonishment and a rush of pure joy whenever I get the chance to be in a beautiful natural place. And I do remember as a child it made me question my place in the universe. It was terrifying and exhilarating and a crucial part of my spiritual development.
So what is happening with these children and young people when they attend regular sessions in woodlands? Firstly they become so familiar with the environment, they feel ‘at home’ and they feel free to be themselves. The routines and structures are perfectly pitched to make them feel safe and supported but not constrained. They are surrounded by trees and birds and they have their own special places which can mean many things to them. They often talk about never wanting to stop coming. They are feeling safe and connected, they feel ownership and they feel a sense of belonging and of being accepted. They feel part of a supportive community with nature as the lynch pin.
Which brings me to the second point. How can we combat the terrifying disconnect which seems to be the current default setting for our governments and society? How can we protect nature from the devastation our species is wreaking? How do we motivate these young people to want to continue to care for our earth as they move into adulthood and become the guardians of the future?
On the workshop we explored our collective grief at what is happening to our planet. We voiced our feelings of helplessness, anger, despair and fear for the future.
Although I share all those fears that irreparable damage has been done, I have to believe that the only option is to keep going, to have some hope in nature’s ability to restore itself whilst making those small differences ourselves and reaching out to others on the same path. And yes, we can have a gentle impact on these young people.
We can start with supporting them to feel the connection and encourage them to be ambassadors. We can inspire them to care for the environment and believe in the importance of social justice. It will happen without even a special effort, just through the process of being in the woods. When I hear a child reminding another about the danger of littering, or showing a visitor a tree they planted with visible pride, I know that some of the seeds sown have taken.. I think we just have to keep on sowing..
And for those who are interested in exploring these issues more for themselves or for the young people they work with, I thoroughly recommend http://www.joannamacy.net/