Every couple of weeks I get an email from someone who wants to become an ecotherapist. The usual scenario is that they’ve looked online but haven’t been able to find anything very conclusive.
Their search usual starts with an assumption that ecotherapy is an established profession - with a central, coherent model, a clear training pathway and an over-arching institution that provides registration, qualifications and credibility.
Anyone already engaged with ecotherapy will immediately recognise why this assumption is flawed!
Working out how to engage with ecotherapy as a practitioner can be a frustrating process. This article is #1 in a series of four which attempts to provide some support to budding ecotherapists.
Mapping the terrain
Ecotherapy describes any practical application of the broad theoretical field of ecopsychology, which emerged simultaneously from several places. These include environmental, transpersonal and social psychology, ecology and environmental philosophy. It has many other roots too, for example in indigenous cosmologies and various archaic forms.
In the context of contemporary western thought, its first real coherence came through Theodore Roszak, Mary Gomes and Allen Kanner's seminal text, ‘Ecopsychology: restoring the earth, healing the mind’ published in 1995.
The fantastic diversity of ecopsychology as a subject has led to an equally rich range of practical applications. These include everything from taking traditional forms of psychotherapy outdoors and bringing ecological issues into the conventional therapy room to forest bathing, wilderness therapy, animal assisted therapies, adventure therapy, nature-based therapy and various forms of body work. There has also been a proliferation of existing traditional practices like yoga, mindfulness, rites of passage and shamanic work being done under the ecotherapy banner.
Probably the most significant distinction is between approaches that are primarily about therapeutic outcomes for the individual and those that see ecotherapy as a reciprocal process. In the individual approach, nature is used as a tool to achieve personal therapeutic outcomes. In the reciprocal one, personal therapy is an outcome of working to heal nature as a whole. We will return to this distinction in a later article.
Ultimately ecopsychology is ubiquitous: everything can be seen through its lens. Consequently, applying it in practice promises astounding possibilities. This is exciting but it can also be extremely problematic because so many aspects of the subject are contested.
All this makes becoming an ecotherapist both very simple and extremely complicated at the same time. To call yourself an ecotherapist you do not need any qualifications or membership to a professional institution. There is no single code of ethics or model of practice. You do not need to subscribe to any particular worldview. You can do whatever you want, wherever you want, with whoever you want - for whatever fee you want to charge. Simple! But this is also a recipe for exploitation, malpractice and serious harm. It invites both unintentional and malicious abuse.
This potential for harm means that some ecotherapists are keen to establish a profession in the conventional sense. They want accredited courses, professional institutions, formal procedures, a code of ethics administered by an elected board, guidelines, standard operating procedures, specialist insurance policies and training pathways. All the trappings of ‘mainstream’ therapies. However, others find even the idea of such structure abhorrent. After all, it represents the worldview that has devastated the planet and turned mental illness into a pandemic. These structures should be avoided at all cost. In fact, they believe that ecotherapy cannot exist in conventional forms - it must be counter-cultural to be authentic.
And yet. And yet thousands of us call ourselves ecotherapists and many of us provide immensely helpful and important support to our clients. How can we navigate through this wild and paradoxical terrain? How can we safely, compassionately, humbly, ethically and professional call ourselves ecotherapists?
The second article in the series explores this question and tentatively offers some answers…