Josh Phangurha considers the positive effect nature can have on mental health.

Mental illness can be defined as a significant impairment of an individual’s psychological and sometimes cognitive abilities, which in turn can have detrimental impacts on one’s ability to fulfil their full potential in life. Mental illnesses can result from psychosocial, developmental and biological factors, or a combination of all of these. It is a complex of illnesses that requires more thorough treatment than simply prescribing drugs that tend to have only a temporary affect, which sadly, many doctors are quick to resort to when dealing with mentally unwell patients.

However, dealing with these complicated conditions may have a rather simple solution – nature. Recent research has shown how nature can benefit people in psychological and biological ways. So could mental illness be treated by simply encouraging people to step into the wilderness?

The American academic and author Theodre Roszak is considered to have been the first person to use the term ‘ecotherapy’ in his book The Voice of Earth in 1992, although environmentalists and psychologists Mary Gomes, Allen Kanner and their colleagues were independently using the same term at the same time as Roszak. Ecotherapy is an array of treatment programmes, which aim to improve mental and physical health through activities involving nature in the great outdoors. The field of ecotherapy aims to improve understanding of the emotional connection between an individual and the natural world by helping individuals that feel alienated from nature in order to give them a stronger sense of belonging in the world.

“Ecology needs psychology, psychology needs ecology” – Theodore Roszak

For example, researchers from the University of Essex conducted a study in 2013 to compare depression scores between people commissioning mental health services that went for a stroll in a nature reserve and people that walked through a shopping centre. 71% of people in the ‘nature walk’ condition showed significant reductions in their depression scores, while only 45% of ‘shop walkers’ showed a depression score reductions and 22% of the shop walkers expressed that they felt even more depressed! This study supports a concept known as ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ (NDD). NDD is described in Richard Louv’s book ‘Last Child in the Woods’ as people living in high-tech societies, such as in big cities, having highly limited exposure to the benefits that nature can provide, such as energetic improvement, lifting depression and boosting overall wellbeing and mental health.

Connecting with nature has also been shown to cause physiological benefits. For example, the term ‘forest bathing’ or ‘Shinrin-Yoku’ was generated in Japan in 1982. It is a therapy that combines leisurely walks on gentle paths under forest canopy with guided activities and meditations to help participants successfully open their senses and hone their intuition. A lot of forest bathing therapy in Japan is influenced by the 19th– 20th century naturalist John Muir, who famously wrote “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over civilised people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains (referring to the Sierra Nevada mountain range) is going home. Wilderness is a necessity”. Furthermore, a study by Hakkaido University in the late 1990’s showed that forest bathing can positively affect diabetics in a significant way. 87 type 2 diabetic participants took 3km and 6km walks (according their physical ability) in a forest while blood samples were taken from then periodically (this was tested 9 times within 6 years). Results showed a 38.9% decrease in blood glucose levels from 3km walks and a 40% decrease from 6km walks. As there was no significant difference between blood glucose levels in participants that walked 3km and 6km, the study suggests that it could be the natural environment influencing a the drop blood glucose levels rather than exercise alone. Inhalation of airborne, plant produced phytoncide compounds was thought to be the main cause as phytoncides had been shown to positively impact blood condition in previous studies.

As a passionate naturalist, I spend a lot of time in natural environments and I can personally say that frequently interacting with wildlife helped me massively through the toughest time of my life so far. When I was 17 I lost my grandfather and my father within the same year. This caused me to hit an all time low that I had never experienced before, feeling as if I was a prisoner in a pit of despair. I also had difficulty expressing my pain and seeking help with loved ones, sometimes even pushing them away. However, one of the few things I did have the strength to do was to continue photographing wildlife at local nature reserves. Whenever I was observing the animals, plants, fungi and scenery, all of my negative thoughts would suddenly exit my mind (of course, this took time and multiple visits to nature reserves). Spending time in nature when I was in a depressive state opened my senses. Seeing the electric blue beauty of a kingfisher whizzing downstream, the dexterity of a spider catching and wrapping its prey on an intricate orb web, a kestrel homing in on a vole in the dense grass with its remarkable eyesight, a pregnant adder cryptically basking in the sunshine to speed up the development of her embryos within, a water vole crossing the river with her two babies in hope of avoiding detection by deadly predators all made me acknowledge the different struggles that all of these life forms have. It gave me a sense of belonging to the natural world, as I was just another organism trying to deal with the struggles of life in order to survive and be healthy.

As well as the beauty, brutality and incredibility of the natural world, it can also be metaphoric for depressive periods in life. I thought of an example while typing this article, which involves the cycle of trees:

When a tree first sprouts from the soil in which it germinated, it’s a little bit like when something great happens in our lives. Whatever that great thing may be, it causes our good emotions to grow and grow just like the tree sprout will. These good emotions and our tree sprout grow until we both reach a peak. This peak, for us, is experiencing ultimate happiness with this great thing in our lives and total satisfaction. For the tree, the peak is becoming an impressive adult with a huge trunk and a myriad of branches and leaves that stand tall above everything else in the forest. However, that tree is suddenly hit by lightening or is knocked over by an elephant, which is like the moment when, for some reason or another, that great thing in our lives is suddenly gone. Just like the tree, we hit rock bottom and our minds and emotions begin to go into a long period of negativity. This period of negativity, for the tree, is like decomposition. This wonderful botanic giant is now being decomposed and broken down by fungi and microorganisms in the soil until what was once an amazing time in this tree’s life is now just a thing of the past, just like that great period in our lives. However, decomposition is actually truly amazing. As the tree is rotted and decomposed, which can be compared to our period of negativity, it doesn’t just vanish from the face of the earth. Nature is more sophisticated than that! The nutrients and organic matter of this once great organism is recycled back into the soil. From these added nutrients in the soil, new plants and more trees can eventually grow to become just as, if not more impressive than that tree that once fell. Similarly, we can recycle our negative emotions, turning them into experiences that spark new growth in our personalities and mental state.

If you are feeling depressed or down in any way, all I can advise is to try immersing yourself in the natural world as frequently as possible. It may sound ridiculous at first, but I can almost guarantee that you will feel some emotional improvement. Depending on the severity of a mental illness, this has the potential to be a healthy alternative treatment to taking medication as the biological aspects that cause good emotions can become too dependant on this artificial treatment. Nature, however, is always there to help.  After all, as John Muir rightfully said, wilderness is not an option in life, “Wilderness is a necessity”.

Josh Phangurha