Nature has a long history in the treatment of mental illness. 18th century moral treatment facilities offered gardens so that patients could enjoy the outdoors and the opportunity to tend to plants. Moral treatment demonstrated high success rates, but unfortunately its success also contributed to its downfall. The activism of Dorothea Dix, who had herself recovered from a mental breakdown with the help of moral treatment, led to the opening of many more asylums, but funding concerns prevented moral treatment from remaining viable on such a large scale. On a smaller scale, therapeutic horticulture remains alive and well, and other nature-based interventions such as animal-assisted therapy and wilderness therapy are also used in the treatment of mental illness. Without having the misfortune of a hospital visit, the responsibility of a dog, or the price of a therapist, however, peers can spend time in nature and receive health benefits that make nature activities a useful wellness tool in recovery.
There are some instant benefits to going outside. Sunlight can help ease depression, particularly in the case of seasonal affective disorder. Being in touch with bare earth, by walking on the beach for example, has been proven to improve sleep, normalize bio-rhythms, promote calm and lower stress, among other things. Viewing nature has been shown in several studies to trigger psychological and physical responses that leave nature viewers relaxed, calm, happy, and fascinated.
Nature can also help us recover from burnout in our brains. When we pay attention to one thing too much, whether it be our illness or work or family members, we inevitably run out of the ability to keep paying attention, because that is the way our brains are built. Once we reach this burnout stage, spending time in nature can give our brains an opportunity to rest and recover by giving it something easy and aesthetically pleasing to focus on. Our brains then recover the ability to pay attention and think clearly. Researchers have demonstrated that when our ability to pay attention is restored by nature, this happens in four phases: the clearing of the head, the recovery of the ability to focus our attention, facing matters on one’s own mind, and reflecting on future priorities and plans. This process is called attention restoration.
People who are depressed or in crisis have particular difficulty with the functions of the brain that can be restored in nature. When attention is restored, this can help us
see our own situations and what we wish to do or need to do
prioritize among what we want and need to do
have the will and courage to carry through with our plans
plan each action step needed
and finally, carry through plans to find our way out of crisis.
Because of the particular difficulties with these brain functions when in crisis, being in nature can have a stronger effect on people in crisis than those who are not in crisis. Additionally, having access to nature in daily life can have a buffering effect on our mental health, so that when we do enter a crisis state, it does not affect us quite as much.
In 1960, a psychoanalyst named Harold Searles wrote a book about the role of nature in recovery from schizophrenia. He noted that people in crisis need ‘stable’ environments in order to feel well. In situations of crisis the individual may need to revert to simpler relations. More complicated relations may be too much to handle. Most complex are our relations to other people, and the simplest relations are those between us and inanimate objects, like stones. Plants and animals fall somewhere in between. Searles argues that an individual in crisis needs to master the simpler relationships (objects, then plants) before gradually going on to take on more complex relationships (animals, then people). The higher up the scale, the more difficult and complex the relationship. Searles believed that nature can be a more straightforward and less judgmental entity for people with schizophrenia to interact with than other human beings.
In two studies of mental health consumers with various diagnoses, the UK mental healthy charity Mind found that green exercise (gardening projects, conservation work, or walking/running/cycling outdoors) led to significant improvements in mood and self-esteem. Two additional studies have demonstrated that volunteering in nature can help people who are socially excluded (including persons with mental illness) reintegrate back into society. As part of my graduate studies, I completed a study demonstrating preliminary evidence that walking in nature helps people cope with voice-hearing.Nature has been an important part of my recovery since the early days of diagnosis and acceptance of my illness. What kind of nature activities do you enjoy? How can you plan to make them a regular part of your life?