Early on in her
career as a professional counselor, Sally Atkins
was working with a client who was suicidal and experiencing severe depression.
Progress was painfully slow, and after several sessions, Atkins
and the client had reached an impasse.
"As a kind of last resort, I said out of my frustration, 'Let's just go hiking and talk in the woods.' I simply had this instinct that she needed to move because she was so stuck in her life," remembers Atkins, a member of the American Counseling Association.
had occasionally taken brief walks with other clients to help put them at ease, but this was not a typical stroll in the park.
The two women embarked on a strenuous hike that lasted nearly six hours.
And out on the trail, in the open air, they were finally able to capture the sense of forward movement that had eluded them in the confines of the counseling office.
"I felt like something happened by virtue of us being out there," Atkins
"It was a marathon therapy and sharing session."
After finishing the impromptu outdoor adventure, Atkins
asked if there was anything the woman could take from the hike and apply to the difficulties she
was facing in her
"Just being outside gave her
a sense of emotional comfort, and she
problems felt small when compared with the immensity of the natural world," Atkins
Atkins went on to develop the first class in ecotherapy for graduate counseling students at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., where she is a professor of human development and psychological counseling and coordinator of expressive arts therapy.
"In teaching and in counseling, we (Atkins and ACA member Keith Davis, her coinstructor for the ecotherapy class) use nature-based experiences to help clients and students find resources for personal growth and development and to enhance their experience of relatedness with each other and with the non-human world.
believes individuals from every age group are at increased risk of having their senses numbed because of technological bombardment.
"That's why it's important for counselors to tap resources that are inherent in the natural world to help people who are struggling," she
Whether addressing graduate counseling students or working with clients, Atkins
emphasizes the importance of learning not just about the natural world, but from it.
"One of the fundamentals is observation," she
That concept of living in harmony with the environment is especially important to Davis, Atkins
, Swanson and other proponents of ecotherapy.
As described by Atkins
, ecotherapy takes the ideas inherent in ecopsychology - an integration of ecology and psychology - and applies them to therapeutic practice.
In an article in press for the Journal of Creativity
in Mental Health on ecotherapy ("Ecotherapy: Tribalism in the Mountains and Forests"), Atkins
and Davis write: "We hold the conviction that our connections with nature and the environment are vitally important for our personal well-being and for the well-being of the planet.
Both Swanson and Atkins
are adamant that ecotherapy not be viewed as simply another subspecialty of counseling.
says students have described the class to her
as life changing, and many have gone on to incorporate nature and ecotherapy ideals into their own practice as counselors.
"The class gives them a renewed appreciation of the power and beauty of the natural world and its application to their own self-care as well as to the care of clients," she
"Then we talked about how empowering that was," Atkins
says, "and discussed the symbolic applications to other areas of our lives."
That can be both comforting and scary," says Atkins
realizes that although many counselors may be interested in incorporating nature into therapy, they may also feel intimidated by the prospect of where or how to begin.
"I don't think you can take any client somewhere that you don't go yourself, so I would first encourage counselors to get out there and experience the healing power of nature themselves," she