This article is number three in a series of four.
The first article established the diverse and rich nature of ecotherapy as a practice and concluded by asking what qualifies someone to use the term ‘ecotherapist’ to describe their profession.
The second article explored this question through three themes: intention, context and risk. It continued by proposing an ecotherapy beyond the obvious synthesis of outdoor leadership with psychotherapy. It concluded with a note about the importance of the ‘embodied’ ecotherapist.
This third article takes a look at some practical considerations like governance, insurance and supervision. Along the way it raises a few questions and offers some thoughts about the future directions of ecotherapy as a profession.
The fourth and final article provides a check-list to get you started, or to help you develop your existing practice.
Why do ecotherapists need governance? For me, it is about ethics and credibility.
As we discovered in the first article, you don’t need qualifications or professional registration to call yourself an ecotherapist. In fact, ecotherapy currently sits almost completely off the mainstream professional map. This brings both challenges and benefits.
On the one hand, being off the map places ecotherapy outside the dominant conventional worldview, where it has the potential to be counter-cultural and transformative. Outside the constraints of convention it brims with the possibility of radical change, at the deepest levels of self and society.
On the other hand, being positioned on the map as a conventional profession - with a governing body, standard ethical framework, training pathways and formal procedures for complaints - would make it a lot easier for funders, organisations and clients to engage with. This question of credibility is a very common issue brought by my coaching clients.
One paradox of ecotherapy governance then, is how can credibility be established in the conventional world, while simultaneously challenging that world?
Of course, the question of ethics precedes that of credibility. Ethics transcend all cultures and worldviews and do not need to restrict radical ways of being and doing. The challenge with ethics - and the thing that makes them useful - is consensus. I feel it would be possible for ecotherapy peers to establish a consensus on ethics, without institutionalisation.
In the meantime, the bioethical mantra “first, do no harm” forms the central governing ethic of my own practice. How harm is defined is another matter! Once again though, this could be agreed by peers in any specific context.
The most obvious and immediate governance possibilities lie where ecotherapy overlaps with an existing profession. For example, where it can be incorporated into an outdoor programme, psychotherapy or coaching process, perhaps the existing governance systems for those professions are enough. Almost immediately there are issues with this approach though, because ecotherapy isn’t one or the other of these professions. It’s therefore likely that if there is an incident it will have to be decided which governance system it best fits into. Obviously this is not ideal and feels quite ‘leaky’ as a framework. While this is currently the most common approach to ecotherapy governance, it is clearly flawed. At some point it will get tested beyond breaking point - probably at the cost of both client and ecotherapist, in one form or another.
My approach to date has been to take what governance is offered by overlapping conventional professions and then back everything up with a web of additional activities. These include
- regular personal practice;
- continuing professional development;
- regular supervision;
- peer-group support and moderation;
- being qualified, experienced, registered and insured (see below) in at least one relevant professional framework;
- clear contracting with your clients;
In the meantime, I imagine that various forms of specialist, institutional governance will start to emerge in different regions. I think this is inevitable and that it will eventually split the current, colourful ecotherapy community and cause a re-definition of terms.
Ultimately the governance ‘bottom line’ is the law of the land in which you work. Nothing insulates you from criminal negligence, except not being negligent. It is essential you do everything you can to minimise any potential harm and are able to demonstrate clearly and beyond doubt how you have gone about it. In order to do that you need to be able to ‘see’ the risks - whatever they are. I feel that naivety and professional arrogance are the main barriers to this, and that both are exacerbated by a lack of collaboration across relevant professions and by isolation from the consensual moderation of peers.
I am not an insurance expert and I am approaching this discussion as a practitioner, not an insurance broker. Please always take professional advice.
My approach is to have public, product and professional liability insurance as an outdoor leader. Obviously this is partly because it is already my profession. But more importantly, I insure this aspect of the work, rather than the therapeutic part, because by far the greatest element of risk is from the physical aspects of working outdoors.
If I am working at a level of psychological depth at which I feel vulnerable not being insured, I would seek to co-facilitate with a registered psychotherapist who is insured. Quite apart from insurance, it would be unethical of me to intentionally practice at such depth without being registered. This is a ‘belt and braces’ approach through collaboration, which I feel best serves my clients.
Before we get to supervision, I feel it is really important for ecotherapists to have experienced traditional psychotherapy themselves. This is to ensure effective management of therapeutic boundaries and to avoid getting caught up in unhelpful projections, projective identification, transferences and counter-transferences - amongst many other things. If you are, or want to be, an ecotherapist and you aren’t familiar with any of these concepts, then perhaps this is a clue that you need to experience psychotherapy for yourself!
For me as an outdoor leader, supervision is mainly about the psychological aspects of the work. This is where I feel I need the most support to operate effectively and ethically. For psychotherapists, psychological supervision is a given but they may also want support for the outdoor - or other aspects - of their ecotherapy practice.
I believe that the key to supervision is that you get enough professional support to feel safe, confident and effective in your practice. Working without adequate support is potentially dangerous for both therapist and client. It is therefore essential for self-care, ethics and efficacy.
The fourth and final article offers a check-list to get you started as an ecotherapist, or to help you develop your existing practice.