Portland Therapy Blog

Portland Therapy Blog

Local experts share the latest information and resources on all things mental health.

Nature and Mental Health

Posted: December 20, 2013 by Kirk Shepard

When counselors validate a client’s concerns about environmental degradation it can evoke a shared visceral connection. Deep inside, some clients may feel extreme anxiety about the trash piling up around them. While Portland is known for it's "green" policies and contentious urban planning, clients may still experience profound stress as childhood memories of landscapes, open fields, and less crowded neighborhoods are destroyed and replaced with modern construction. These individuals may utilize counseling sessions to grieve this very real loss. Other clients may experience ongoing distress when hearing about "global warming, melting glaciers, burning rain forests, evaporating ozone, vanishing water supplies, and acid rain" (Roszak, 2009). "Because we’re not being informed about links between mental health symptoms caused by the way we live and the accelerating inner and outer devastation, we remain mystified about why we feel so much pain" (Buzzell & Chalquist, 2009).

As this pain and loss increases as a result of living under an industrial growth culture that maximizes profit, regardless of the impact it has on all of life, we need to investigate alternative modalities that focus on prevention and not just intervention.

Ecotherapy attempts to do this by recognizing that the individual is embedded in ecological, social, familial, inter-personal, and intra-psychic systems. Ecotherapy is an umbrella term for treatment modalities that enlarge the traditional scale of treatment by including symbiotic healing and growth between humans and their environment. Ecotherapy allows counselors to develop ways to work with the ‘purely personal’ problems brought by clients so that they can be seen not only as unique expressions but also as microcosms of the larger whole of what is happening in the world.

"The goals of therapy then include not only the ability to find joy in the world, but also to hear the Earth speaking of one’s own suffering, to participate in and contribute to the healing of the planet by finding one’s niche in the Earth’s living system and occupying it actively" (Conn, 1995). Some examples of ecotherapeutic techniques that can promote ecological identity development and a client's overall mental and emotional health might include:

  • Adventure therapy: Challenging activitities that promote trust, esteem and confidence.
  • Wilderness therapy: Getting clients outside for extended periods of time.
  • Horticulture therapy: Using plants & gardens as therapy.
  • Nature as Metaphor: Integrating nature with expressive and projective therapies.
  • Simplicity Circles: Groups of people who gather together and help one another to simplify their lives.

"Each of these modalities addresses in its own way the core delusions that underlie so many of our difficulties: the mistaken belief that we humans are somehow separate from the rest of nature. When we joyfully reconnect with nature and recognize in ourselves the natural beings that we are, true healing will follow" (Buzzell, 2009).

The intimate communication that I find in my own relationship with nature, provokes a hunger to be driven out of my comfort zone. I become aware of my participation in the health and illness of the planet. I believe we realize our creativity when we are united with nature. We need this connection, this relationship to the natural world, now more than ever.

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Kirk Shepard (He/They)

Licensed Professional Counselor


I am a group facilitator, clinical supervisor, counselor, and trainer.

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Client Status
accepting clients
LGBTQ Issues, Men's Issues, Personal Growth, Historical Trauma