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 become an ecotherapy practitioner can be a frustrating process. This article attempts to provide a guide 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 costs. 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 professionally call ourselves ecotherapists?
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 simply 1 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 do 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 therapist's 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 which is experienced in the client's 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 a doubt, the most prolific, serious, intractable and frequent risks of 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 others 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 debriefs 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 who 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 who 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.
Why do ecotherapists need governance? For me, it is about ethics and credibility.
As we've discovered, 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 up 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 the 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.
An Ecotherapy Practice Checklist
The idea of this checklist is to help you think through some of the issues around becoming an ecotherapist. Please bear in mind - as we have seen through the preceding articles in this series - that ecotherapy can be practiced in wildly diverse ways, with many different interpretations.
This list is not intended to be exhaustive, authoritative or even correct! It is just some guiding questions that have emerged from reflecting on my own research and experience of professional practice over the years.
1. What is your purpose?
Is your practice primarily about therapeutic outcomes for the individual or do you see your work as a reciprocal process where the rest of nature must benefit too?
Do you want to practice therapy where you are working with mental health issues that are likely to have been referred? Or do you want to work in more of a personal development, coaching, well-being or supporting capacity?
2. What’s your intention?
Who do you want to work with? Why do you want to work with them? What are you hoping to offer them? What are you hoping to receive? What changes are you hoping to support in the world?
3. Where do you want to work?
What’s your context? Do you want to work indoors, in a garden, allotment, community farm, park, local woodland, by the sea, in forests or in mountainous regions? Do you want to work near where people live, or somewhere remote? Or perhaps a combination of these and other places?
Do you want to work in short sessions, whole days, at regular intervals or in a residential context? Do you want to work in environments that are new and different to those that your clients might experience in their everyday lives?
4. What risks are there?
Where is there a potential for loss in your work? Could people get physically hurt, what are the psychological risks? What is the role of different cultures, ethnicities, and sexual and gender identities in your practice. What is the potential for your clients to experience some form of loss around these?
Can you see all the risks? Who can help you see them?
How can you mitigate loss? How can you take responsibility properly for your role as an ecotherapist? What responsibilities do your clients have in their work with you? Do they know what they are - are they comfortable to accept them?
What happens if something goes wrong? What’s your plan? How can you demonstrate that you met your duty of care?
5. Do you embody what you hope to offer?
What’s your own ‘Earth story’? Where, when, how and why do you feel part of the rest of nature? How does nature inspire, motivate, heal, empower and support you? How do you contribute to the well-being of nature yourself? Are these questions even relevant to you - perhaps the way you embody this work is different?
6. Have you made time for regular personal practice of your own?
Do you walk your talk? Do you practice the processes and techniques you might use with your clients on yourself? Can you empathise with your clients?
7. Are you qualified, experienced and registered in at least one profession relevant to your ecotherapy practice?
While there is no one ecotherapy professional qualification, are you qualified and experienced enough to take on the primary risks present in your work in a professional and ethical way?
8. Are you committed to Continuing Professional Development (CPD)?
When is your next CPD event? How often do you engage with CPD? Where can you find out about CPD opportunities? What CPD do you need?
9. Do you get regular supervision?
Do you have a supervisor to work with? Do you work with them regularly? If not, when do you work with them? When was the last time you sought supervision support?
10. Do you have a peer group to support you and moderate your practice?
Who is in your peer group? Do they have the diversity and depth of experience needed to support you properly? How do you connect with them? How often do you engage with them? Are you able to give and receive feedback openly in your peer group? Do you respect their advice and counsel?
11. Do you take care of contracting with your clients?
Do you have a written contract with your clients? Are they clear about what you are - and are not - offering? Do they understand the risks and responsibilities of working with you? Do they know about insurance and what to do if they have a concern or complaint? Are you charging them and do your clients know how much and what the terms are? Do your clients understand their boundaries of confidentiality and under what circumstances these must be breached?
12. Do you have professional, product and public liability insurance relevant to a core aspect of your ecotherapy practice?
Whether an outdoor leader, psychotherapist or other healthcare worker, educator or coach - are you insured for that bit of your conventional profession which overlaps with your ecotherapy practice? If not, what is your strategy for providing you and your clients with adequate insurance coverage?
- Of course it's not that simple!
- I prefer the word ‘review’ as debrief harks back to the military age of outdoor leadership.