Army veteran Stephen Simmons served multiple tours in Iraq. When he came home, he was diagnosed with posttraumatic stress, which made interacting with friends and family difficult. Though he had trouble sleeping and struggled with managing his feelings of anger and guilt, he found strength in mitigating these struggles with physical activity. “Instead of ignoring and repressing these aggressive tendencies or jolts of adrenaline in your system, you can put them to work by challenging yourself against nature. It’s about action rather than apathy,” he said in a 2014 article posted on Mother Nature Network.
Why Ecotherapy Works for Former Service Members
Many service men and women are struggling with mental health issues after their tours abroad; this epidemic is claiming the lives of more veterans than the most recent wars themselves. With the growing need for effective mental health services, many veterans are turning to alternative forms of “green” treatment in outdoor settings. Since camaraderie, physical challenge, and personal growth are characteristics of both military service and of many of the ecotherapeutic programs cropping up around the United States, it makes this an ideal treatment form for veterans struggling with posttraumatic stress.wilderness therapy, horticultural therapy, walk-and-talk therapy, and numerous other nature-oriented programs. Anecdotally, humans have always known that contact with nature improves one’s health. Recent studies (Mostafavi, 2014) have noted the positive impact that nature can have on one’s mood and stress level. Only recently have clinical professionals in the mental health field been combining the healing powers of both therapy and nature. Martin Jordan noted in his book Nature and Therapy that nature is “positive and beneficial to human health in a number of ways: reducing stress, restoring attention, promoting well-being.”
The need for more effective mental health treatments for their community is an issue military members and veterans face. Some find the outdoor recreational modality to be one that is recognizable and comforting. Challenging themselves physically and mentally and striving to attain a goal is familiar to most with a military background. Some veterans report being more willing to engage in an active form of treatment rather than conventional models of therapeutic recovery.
Evidence for the Efficacy of Ecotherapy to Treat Veterans
Stacy Bare, an Iraq war veteran, founded Military Outdoors, which is a program through The Sierra Club that helps veterans access nature to improve their mental health and boost emotional resiliency. Bare believes that wilderness therapy can be used as a way to heal after combat. “We know intuitively that outdoor recreation can provide a quantifiable mental health benefit,” Bare said in an article published by High Country News. Bare feels strongly that a partnership between local Veterans Health Administration hospitals and wilderness programs is necessary, but acknowledges that more data needs to be collected to prove the safety and efficacy of this intervention.
The aim of these ecotherapy programs and services is to connect veterans back to nature in a way that will conjure positive emotions and elicit a sense of confidence when reintegrating into the civilian world.
Some emerging evidence comes from David Scheinfeld, director of research for Project Rebirth, who conducted a study that analyzed the impact of nature-based experiences on veterans’ anxiety levels and their sense of purpose. Nearly 200 veterans participated in a week-long backpacking expedition. Data were gathered in intervals post-outdoor experience. Scheinfeld noted that the majority of participants showed improvement in social engagement, decreased depression, and a rise in the number of people who were willing to seek clinical services after the expedition.
Thresholds, a Chicago-based mental health services agency, is partnering with a botanical garden to offer therapeutic horticultural activities to their veteran clients. Once a month, the group meets at the garden and tends to plants and flowers. The vets participating in this program have reported elevated moods, reduced levels of stress, and feelings of satisfaction when nurturing their plantings. The continual growth, death, and renewal of the plants is viewed as a metaphor for life.
Many veterans who engage in outdoor recreational activities have begun to rediscover their resiliency and have tapped into leadership skills they learned during military service. The aim of these ecotherapy programs and services is to connect veterans back to nature in a way that will conjure positive emotions and elicit a sense of confidence when reintegrating into the civilian world. This form of treatment is a way to garner the benefits of supportive therapy while being out in the wild. It encourages veterans to get out, connect with others, and challenge themselves in both new and sometimes familiar ways.
- Moss, L. (2014, August 10). Nature-loving pets help veteran overcome PTSD. Mother Nature Network. Retrieved from http://www.mnn.com/family/pets/stories/nature-loving-pets-help-veteran-overcome-ptsd
- Mostafavi, B. (2014, September 23). Walking off depression and beating stress outdoors? Nature group walks linked to improved mental health. University of Michigan Health System. Retrieved from http://www.uofmhealth.org/news/archive/201409/walking-depression-and-beating-stress-outdoors-nature-group
- Project Cohort. (n.d.). Project Rebirth. Retrieved from http://www.projectrebirth.org/project-cohort/
- Thresholds Veterans Project and Chicago Botanic Gardens. (2014, August 7). Retrieved from http://www.thresholds.org/2014/08/thresholds-veterans-project-chicago-botanic-gardens/
- Wiles, T. (2015, February 16). Wilderness as therapist. High Country News. Retrieved from https://www.hcn.org/issues/47.3/wilderness-as-therapist
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