Eco-psychotherapy: current, ancient, and future?

Roger Duncan, Systemic family psychotherapist, systemic supervisor, lecturer

Published in JHH 18.3-Shifting the paradigm

The urgency of reconnecting with nature

We are living in unprecedented and unsettling times. Industrial societies appear to be sleepwalking into a chain of human and ecological disasters. Since I started writing this article the sixth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been published. (IPCC, 2021). This summary states more clearly than ever before the unequivocal fact that climate change is the consequence of human influence. The report states that addressing these issues will require rapid and far-reaching unprecedented changes in all aspects of society. For those of us who have long been aware of ongoing environment destruction, this report isn’t new information, but a stark confirmation of what has been clear for decades.

Theodore Roszak, a pioneer thinker in the field, popularised the term ecopsychology in the early 1990s, defining it as an ‘emerging synthesis of ecology and psychology…. the skillful application of ecological insights to the practice of Psychotherapy’ (Duncan, 2018). Roszak later co-edited the book Ecopsychology: restoring the earth, healing the mind (Roszak et al,1995) which collected the essential ideas of ecopsychology from a wide range of influential writers. In it Chellis Glendenning highlighted the parallels between addiction and western industrial consumer culture’s extractive relationship with nature (Glendenning 1994). Assuming that there is a growing alienation between humans and nature, eco – psychology seeks a reconnection for the benefit of mental wellbeing, perhaps too hoping that when we come to our senses we may live more sustainably and feel a mature ethical sense of responsibility toward the more than human world. In the UK Jungian psychotherapist and ecopsychologist Mary Jane Rust has described the current state of the work in her book (Rust, 2020), and a list of ecopsychotherapists and trainings can be found on the ecopsychology website

Eco-psychotherapy and mental health

The impact of the global lockdown in response to the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted as never before how important nature is for our mental health and wellbeing (Rajoo, et al, 2021).

With evidence for its benefits growing ever stronger, the discussion of how to make more of this ‘natural resource’ has moved from the margins to the mainstream. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has proposed a 25-year government health and wellbeing plan to improve our relationship with the natural world (Defra, 2018). In parallel the intertwining climate and ecologic crises have provoked high-level responses to ‘climate anxiety’. The Royal College of Psychiatrists has put forward a position statement in preparation for the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference in October 2021 (

One aspect of ecotherapy is well established in the UK voluntary sector, where social groups get involved in work or physical activities outdoors in a purposeful context. The UK Wildlife Trusts have been promoting nature-friendly schools and encouraging the public through social media to go 30 days wild – ‘one random wild act a day, for a whole month’ (for example see

As well as engaging with adults with mental health challenges and refugees, ‘green care’ can mean conservation work, or walking, or gardening together. ‘Blue care’ activities in and around water might entail outdoor ‘wild’ swimming or cold-water swimming for mental wellbeing. Reconnecting with nature through blue care or green care or ecotherapy is undoubtedly helpful for individuals suffering from Mental Health issues (Harper et al, 2021).

Reimagining nature and mental health for a post-colonial eco-psychotherapy

But there is a great deal more to what nature connectedness says about our species, our disconnect and our future. If we are to create an eco-psychotherapy fit to meet the challenges of our uncertain times we will require a new ‘map’ of the relationship between nature and mind. As American writer, feminist, and civil rights activist Audrey Lorde has reminded us, ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’. And so within the field of ecopsychology there is a growing sense that escaping the reductionist logic of western ideas and assumptions will mean making a ‘decolonial turn’ (Fisher, 2019; Ndlovu, 2014). If we have the humility to take off our cultural blinkers we might ask what indigenous knowledge systems can teach us about the complexity of nature and the enigmas of mental health. One consequence of such a move from a position of separation, disconnection and dominion, would be to steer our alienated world view away from extraction and exploitation, towards one of stewardship, kinship and care (Salmon, 2015).

‘The future – if we are to have one worth living in – is calling humankind and wild nature to live in peace’

Biologist Merlin Sheldrake (Sheldrake, 2020) and feminist philosopher Donna Haraway, (Haraway, 2016) have both concluded that the modern synthesis, which has dominated biology for 80 years, is no longer adequate to describe the complexity of nature, nor humankind’s place in it. One of the central ideas of the modern synthesis is that evolution is a blind and random process – an idea fluently expressed in Richard Dawkins’ (1986) The Blind Watchmaker. But evolution – as many biologists would now agree – is not random and the fundamental unit is not a discrete selfish competing gene, but a collaborating system that works to guide evolution at all levels from genes and cells to organisms and cultures (Huneman & Walsh, 2017).

Is this a sign that science is stretching out a hand towards indigenous wisdom? It is becoming clear that the living world and the human mind share deep and structural complexities, always functioning and interacting in unpredictable ways that defy the logic of western scientific models. Gregory Bateson – always way ahead of the pack – pointed this out in the 1970s in his Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972) and later in Mind and Nature (1979). Nor has this observation of non-separation escaped the notice of indigenous cultures. Psychologist Dr Bayo Akomalafe describes how in his traditional Nigerian Yoruba culture, there is no word for ‘nature’ and that nature is not perceived as separate from human culture. The intimate connection between humans and natural world is assumed to be inherent. He goes on to conclude that the western concept of good mental health is at best socially constructed and at worst an explicitly repressive ‘ideological tool’.

Adverse childhood experiences (ACES) are now known to have a lifelong impact on mental and physical health (Felitti et al, 1998). Within disadvantaged groups the trauma experienced by populations subjected to mass migration, deprivation, genocide, war and slavery can translate into a trans-generational cultural legacy. On the other hand, globally powerful leaders in industry and government, highly privileged as their upbringing might have been and sanctioned as they are to make environmentally catastrophic decisions, can also be affected by traumatic childhood experiences whose emotional scars distort their actions(Trump, 2020; Bower, 2021).

The decolonial turn from Logos to mythos

How are we to move beyond our socially, culturally, ecologically and epistemologically intractable and unsustainable predicament? Indigenous cultures, where the importance of renewing and reconnecting people deeply to their cultural and natural ecosystems has not yet been forgotten, have developed social technologies to facilitate deep nature connection and direct experience of the system intelligence in nature (Mahdi et al, 1996). In such societies, ritual rites of passage are at the core of indigenous individual identity and group integrity.

‘Indigenous cultures developed social technologies to facilitate deep nature connection and direct experience of the system intelligence in nature’

We can think of a rites of passage as a ‘dying practise’, a way of facilitating and sanctioning painful but necessary letting go as part of a healthy process of change. Specifically in adolescence it aims to leave behind the narcissistic childhood sense of self (Foster & Little, 1998). Rites of passage can also mark other significant transitions in life stage – birth, puberty, adulthood, courtship, marriage, death, taking office, admission to a group or ejection, and during end-of-life care and bereavement. Leaving behind the world of separateness and logic, these practises facilitate a deep and systemic phase change in the sense of self and belonging. They are an invitation to be healed through a journey into the mythic. In any meaningful sense we have largely abandoned them in the ‘developed’ world.

Many indigenous cultures prepare rites of passage for adolescents on their journey towards adult maturity and stewardship of the land (Plotkin, 2013). Generally the rituals involve solo time in wilderness and ritual fasting (Foster & Little,1998). We are seeing a resurgence of interest in these practices and a growing body of experience to support their benefits and potential for enhancing emotional wellbeing. Throughout the world interest in reinstating cultural rites of passage is growing. In the UK and worldwide there is maturing body of trainers and facilitators who can provide safe and powerfully effective nature-based rituals. This work is forward-looking, respecting but not mimicking indigenous practice, not relying on cultural appropriation, but drawing on narratives based in neuroscience, depth psychology and deep place-based spirituality.

The signs of inner and outer breakdown are all around us. But without imaginative ways to see beyond the horizons of our flawed and fragile post-industrial culture denial and faith in business as usual will continue to be our understandable defence. Instead, the future – if we are to have one worth living in – is calling humankind and wild nature to live in peace. In our time of the Great Unravelling, our task is to imagine into being, forms of eco-psychotherapy that can bring forth the ecological self and create the future culture.


Bateson G (1979) Mind and nature. Hampton Press.

Bateson G (1972) Steps to an ecology of mind. Chandler Publishing.

Bower T (2020) Boris Johnson: The gambler. WH Allen.

Dawkins R (1986) The blind watchmaker. Norton and Company.

Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (2018) A green future: our 25-year plan to improve the environment. London: DEFRA.

Duncan R (2018) Nature in mind: Systemic thinking and imagination in ecopsychology and mental health. Routledge.

Felitti VJ, Anda RF, Nordenberg D, Williamson DF, Spitz AM, Edwards V, Koss MP & Marks JS (1998) Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults: The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 14(4) 245–258.

Fisher A (2019) Ecopsychology as decolonial praxis. Ecopsychology, 11(3).

Foster S & Little M (1998). The four shields: The initiatory seasons of human nature. Lost Borders Press.

Glendenning C (1994). My name is Chellis and I’m in recovery from Western civilization. Shambhala.

Haraway D (2016) Staying with the trouble. Making kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press.

Harper NJ, Fernee CR & Gabrielsen LE (2021) Nature’s role in outdoor therapies: An umbrella review. Int J Environ Res Public Health, 18(10) 5117.

Huneman P & Walsh DM (2017). Challenging the modern synthesis: Adaptation, development, and inheritance. Oxford University Press.

IPCC (2021) Sixth assessment report. (accessed 4 October 2021).

Mahdi LC, Christopher NG & Meade M (1996). Crossroads: The quest for contemporary rites of passage. Open Court.

Ndlovu M (2014) Why indigenous knowledge in the 21st century? A decolonial turn. Yesterday and today 11, 84–98.

Plotkin B (2013) Wild mind: A field guide to the human psyche. New World Library.

Rajoo KS, Singh Karam DS, Abdu A, Rosli Z, Gerusu GJ (2021). Addressing psychosocial issues caused by the COVID-19 lockdown: Can urban greeneries help? Urban For Urban Green, 65:127340.

Roszak T, Gomes ME & Kanner AD (eds) (1995). Ecopsychology: Restoring the earth, healing the mind. Sierra Club Books.

Rust MJ (2020) Towards an ecopsychotherapy. Confer.

Salmon E (2015) Teaching kincentric ecology in an urban environment. Journal of sustainability education [online]. (accessed 4 October 2021).

Sheldrake M (2020) Entangled life: How fungi make our world, change our minds and shape our future. The Bodley Head.

Stewart-Smith S (2020) The well gardened mind. William Collins.

Trump M. (2020) Too much and never enough: How my family created the world’s most dangerous man. Simon & Schuster.