Our views towards nature often differ based on our upbringings and lived experiences, however an innate connection to nature is present within all human beings. Unfortunately in the western world, the relationship between humans and nature has been viewed by many as a pool of resources — think oil, agricultural land, and water — rather than something to be respected and cherished.
Fortunately, increased research around the link between nature and our mental health and wellbeing has led to the rise of ecopsychology. Ecopsychology acknowledges the inherent emotional connection between humans and nature and seeks to foster and expand this relationship. The concept also proposes that many instances of psychological distress are caused by our alienation from and complicity in the destruction of nature.
The term ecopsychology was coined by American academic Theodore Roszak, who wrote in his 1995 book The Voice of the Earth, “the species that destroys its own habitat in pursuit of false values, in willful ignorance of what it does, is ‘mad’ if the word means anything.”
Roszack proposed a link between emotional issues in individuals and the industrialist lens western civilisation tends to view nature through, in turn proposing that restoring our connection to nature would not only benefit individual mental health but also our relationships with other individuals and society at large. “The Earth's cry for rescue from the punishing weight of the industrial system we have created is our own cry for a scale and quality of life that will free each of us to become the complete person we know we were born to be.”
A 2019 study of 20,000 people undertaken by a team from the European Centre for Environment & Human Health at the University of Exeter found that those who spent at least two hours a week in green spaces reported markedly higher health and psychological wellbeing than those who didn’t. The time could be spent all at once or spaced out over the week. The focus group was demographically diverse, with the study finding the beneficial effects of time spent in nature extended across various ethnic groups and socioeconomic statuses, as well as those living with disabilities and chronic illness.
Similarly, a smaller study undertaken in the same year and published in the International Journal of Environmental Health Research touched on the benefits of green exercise. A 50-minute forest walk was shown to positively benefit anxiety, perceived stress, and working memory when compared with a 50-minute walk along a busy road.
Now, contemporary ecopsychology is extending beyond exposure to nature at a surface level. Rather than say, simply sitting on a bench and enjoying the landscape, experts recommend fostering deeper, more immersive relationships with nature. In addition to partaking in green exercise such as forest bathing, it can be beneficial to engage in acts that seek to conserve and repair the environment. Examples include rewilding programs or the #NaturePact program organised by the People & Parks Foundation happening in September (supported by Koala Eco), which combines intentional exposure to nature with education on connection to nature for mental health.