This article is the second in a series of four about how to become an ecotherapist.
The first article established the diverse and rich nature of ecotherapy as a practice. It finished by asking what qualifies someone to use this term to describe their profession.
This second article explores this question through three themes: intention, context and risk. If continues by proposing an ecotherapy beyond the obvious (and I believe, over-simple) synthesis of outdoor leadership with psychotherapy. It then concludes with a note about the importance of the ‘embodied’ ecotherapist.
What is your intention as an ecotherapist? Are you intending to work with people referred to you, who have been formally diagnosed with mental health issues? Or are you hoping to engage those who self-refer because they feel they need some kind of help and support?
If you are working with serious mental health issues, perhaps referred to you by another professional, then it is my opinion that you will need to be qualified as a psychologist, psychotherapist or psychiatrist. This is probably a self-limiting scenario, as you are unlikely to receive these kinds of referrals through the formal health system without conventional qualifications and registration.
If you are working with people who have self-selected, or who have been referred for anxiety or mild-to-moderate depression (MMD), for physical rehabilitation (for example, after a cardiac event or surgery), or for health issues caused by challenges like social isolation, or bereavement, then I do not feel you need to be clinically qualified in a conventional sense.
I have also seen outdoor approaches help those struggling with addictions, something which is well evidenced in certain contexts.
For me the guiding principle is to ask yourself the question: is this big ’T’ therapy - where you are consciously engaging with serious mental health issues? Or is this small ’t’ therapy, where you simply1 intend to facilitate the therapeutic benefits that can naturally emerge through time spent outdoors?
A further helpful guideline is whether or not your client has ever been prescribed medication for mental health issues, has ever harmed themselves or others, or has been ‘sectioned’ - detained by the state for mental health issues. I feel this is a less clear guideline with a lot of variables. It should perhaps be part of your thinking, but not strictly applied.
What potential for harm exists in your specific context?
If you or your client are bringing ecological issues into a conventional therapeutic setting, then obviously the potential for harm is no more or less than bringing any other issue into the consulting room. If however, you are taking your clients on a three-day walk through a mountain range, then clearly the potential for harm is radically different.
And there are all the points in-between. Working in your local urban park or woodland. At a city allotment or in a private garden. Or perhaps out on a day walk (or canoe trip, bike-ride or wild swim).
So once you have your intention clarified, where is it you want to work? If you’re working one-hour sessions with ecological issues in a consulting room, then you will need different skills and experience than if you are working in a wilderness area on a 21 day programme!
Risk is the potential for loss. This could be loss of life or limb, or perhaps of belongings. But it could also be loss of confidence, pride, power, cultural identity, sexual identity or spirituality, for example. Loss is never only physical and material.
Any therapist or facilitator will also know about loss of process (LOP). This is a bit more tricky to grasp but is when a process - like building trust for example, is negatively impacted by something that happens. Working outdoors, an example might be that the facilitator or therapist doesn’t know how to use a map and compass, so gets the client lost. Working indoors, perhaps the therapeutic space is disrupted by another client turning up early due to the therapists poor planning.
Risk is not a fixed measure - it’s profoundly dynamic. Classic interplays include those between ‘real’ and ‘perceived’ risk, between the likelihood of something happening and the ensuing consequences, and between the technical competence of the protagonist and the type of risk they might encounter.
Managing risk in ecotherapy practice depends on your own personal background, training and experience. For example, psychotherapists may see all the psychological risks but be completely blind to those visible to the outdoor leader. On the other-hand, there are many examples of highly qualified outdoor leaders becoming overwhelmed in a psychological emergency.
Depending on your context, have you assessed and mitigated risk to the lowest possible level… and then formally disclaimed the remaining risk to your client? Are you qualified to take responsibility for the type of risks you may encounter? Can you even ‘see’ all the risks involved?
You need to feel personally confident that you have managed risk to a level of professional best practice. For physical risk, this means to a level that is at, or below, that experienced in the clients ‘everyday’ life. You must also be able to demonstrate your risk management process to a court of law, to avoid being exposed to potential claims of criminal negligence. This applies regardless of your context or intention.
Managing metaphysical risks is much more complicated. Perhaps another blog topic! However, in my 20 plus years of professional practice I have formally assessed risk for hundreds of programmes and courses. Without doubt the most prolific, serious, intractable and frequent risks working outdoors are physical. So if you are intending to work outdoors, please bear this in mind!
Toward new forms
Most psychotherapists who want to work outdoors have not trained formally in outdoor leadership so have absolutely no idea about the complex field of outdoor risk management. In my experience, they see risk as primarily psychological - obviously sometimes leading to physical harm of self or other as a secondary outcome.
Meanwhile, outdoor leaders ‘read’ the environment around them constantly, weighing up multiple risk dynamics and actively reducing the potential for physical harm. To them, psychological risks are secondary - something to be ‘dealt with’ during the ubiquitous debrief.2 However, at the first sight of a psychological crisis they start to feel out of their depth - fearful of the unknown and mysterious world of psychology. Obviously there is room here for some collaboration!
There are also the ‘super-ecotherapists’. They have both formal outdoor leadership and psychotherapy training and experience. They are quite rare and they are usually the product of more than ten years of training and assessment.
Along with the ‘supers’, there are those that have simply done their 10,000 hours, as the Buddhists would say. They have - by hook or by crook, qualified or not - managed to get so much practical experience that they can work safely and effectively across a broad range of ecotherapeutic scenarios. They have effectively completed an apprenticeship.
In my opinion, whether through the formal or apprenticeship approach, ecotherapy is way more than simply a combination of psychotherapy and outdoor leadership. While deeply informed by these two, it is a whole new profession in its own right.
I believe it is those that fully embrace this ‘new form’ that represent the truly innovative edge of ecotherapy. They are able to draw what is most useful from both psychotherapy and outdoor leadership - and importantly ditch what is less helpful. They can then add a vast array of new ideas and techniques from myriad other sources, to craft a whole new profession.
The embodied ecotherapist
Whether you are a psychotherapist, outdoor leader, super-ecotherapist or have earned your stripes through countless hours of doing the work, the heart of good practice is your own heart.
Your work as an ecotherapist must be based on your own experience of yourself as an ecological being - your own self as part of the rest of nature. For me, a lifetime of professional practice is only possible with one of personal practice. The work is fundamentally embodied and to practice it, the facilitator or therapist must embody it too.
In the next article we take a look at some practical considerations like governance, insurance and supervision. The final article (#4) provides a check-list to get you started, or to help you develop your existing practice.
1 Of course, it’s not that simple!
2 I prefer the word ‘review’ as debrief harks back to the military age of outdoor leadership.