The healing touch of the wild

Hetti Dysch introduces the practice of wilderness therapy, which is growing throughout the UK

“Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us. We need hours of aimless wandering or spates of time sitting on park benches observing the mysterious world of ants and the canopy of tree tops…”  Maya Angelou

There is something therapeutic about spending time outdoors and practitioners of wilderness therapy place this at the very heart of their work.

The practice, sometimes known as adventure therapy, eco-psychology or nature therapy, became popularised when programmes such as Boot Camp hit our television screens. This featured privileged American teens with challenging behaviour trekking through harsh desert terrain. Funded by distraught parents, the camp aimed to push the children to their physical limits in order to reveal their emotional resources and build their sense of social responsibility.

But it isn’t only ‘extreme’ client groups and those who can afford expensive programmes, who can benefit. Nor is it only distant, isolated wilderness areas where the benefits can be found. In its essence, wilderness therapy addresses the very basic need for humans to inhabit and know their landscape, which means it can offer potential benefit to all ages and walks of life.

Our relationship with landscape has changed drastically over the past two centuries following the industrial revolution and subsequent agricultural developments. Sayings such as ‘salt of the earth’ and ‘solid as a rock’ hint at our historical intertwinement with the land, yet most of us live within buildings, using cars to get from place to place, protecting ourselves from the elements.

In an essay from the anthology Ecopsychology, child psychologist Anita Barrows urges the birth of a new child development theory, which not only looks at social factors but also ecological ones. “The infant has an awareness not only of human touch,” she writes, “but of the touch of the breeze on her skin, variations in light and colour, temperature, texture, sound…”

If children are separated from their natural playground of the outdoors, how will they know what Anita calls their ‘ecological self,’ and how will they experience a sense of belonging to something larger than their nuclear family and the materialistic culture into which they are born?

There are a range of pioneering programmes bringing the benefits of spending time in nature, to more people

Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods, aptly coined the term ‘nature deficit disorder’ to describe the human cost of alienation from nature, which includes: “diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses.” This he says may affect individuals, families and whole communities.

However, there are now a range of pioneering programmes operating in the UK, that make use of different natural terrains to bring the benefits of spending time in nature, to more people.

Visiting a sustainable community and social enterprise called Embercombe in Devon, I was struck by the quiet and profound revolution I discovered on this 50-acre site. All staff are employed with equal salaries and leverage in the organisation, and support for the staff includes a resident psychotherapist. There is also an elected council whose sole intention is to keep Embercombe true to its founding intentions.

With a mission to touch hearts, stimulate minds and inspire committed action for a truly sustainable world, Embercombe has established a nourishing and therapeutic environment where the people (including volunteers and apprentices), the working structure and the land entwine. This sets a firm foundation for its wilderness therapy courses, which are available for children in care, ex-soldiers experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and private individuals wanting to learn about authentic leadership.

Embercombe’s work is achieved without mountains or untouched swathes of land. By contrast, an Essex-based charity, The Wilderness Foundation, runs programmes that entail introducing vulnerable client groups to the wilds of Scotland or South Africa. In this way it is untamed nature that helps to inspire transformation.

The foundation’s Young Swans programme for example, which has been set up to address the gender gap in business, environmental and social leadership, provides training and mentoring for young women from differing backgrounds. The programme culminates with a 15-day wilderness trail, the challenge of which takes them out of their comfort zone and enables them to truly understand the balance between nature and humanity.

Moving up country to Droitwich, we come to the work of My Big Adventure, a not-for-profit organisation that works with disaffected, vulnerable children, mostly referred by social services. Using adventure activities such as canoeing and climbing to engage young people, a combination of education, coaching and counselling is then introduced to reshape their experience and enjoyment of learning and achieving.

There are also nationwide organisations such as BTCV, which runs ‘the green gym,’ offering outdoor volunteer work. The tasks it provides, such as hedge-laying and tree coppicing, give people a chance to get outside and learn new skills while helping to maintain local green spaces. Although this may not be traditionally termed wilderness therapy, it certainly fits the description.

Finally, there is a smattering of psychotherapists who are now choosing to base their one-on-one work outdoors. Ian Siddons Heginworth works from a cabin deep in the heart of Devon woodland; Martin Jordan from his local park in Brighton; and Hayley Marshall from the hills of the Peak District.

Wilderness therapy, like psychotherapy, has emerged in response to a deep human need for connection. In this instance the need for connection is to landscape, the seasonal cycles and the wildness and vitality of the natural world.

Helping us to reconnect both individually and culturally, wilderness therapy invites us to get to know our landscape and inspires communities to be guided by the blueprint of sustainability and interdependence that nature reveals.

Hetti Dysch is a psychotherapist (UKCP accredited) who has also run nature-based programmes for adults and children for the past 8 years.