Ecotherapy is the connection with the rest of life

Published: 20 March 2006 at 11:32

Ambra Burls, a senior lecturer and researcher in Mental Health at Anglia Ruskin University’s Institute of Health and Social Care (IHSC), has had an editorial published in the British Medical Journal on the subject of ecotherapy. The piece was co-written with colleague Woody Caan, Professor of Public Health, also at Anglia Ruskin, and was reported on in two national daily papers.

The editorial entitled ‘Improving human health through nature conservation’ explains how active contact with nature known, in this context, as ecotherapy can be beneficial in restoring human health. Therapies can involve working with wildlife, on conservation projects or simply in a garden environment, according to the report.

Projects used to illustrate the piece include work with small animals, including squirrels, owls and raccoons, to help children with challenging behaviour; and other therapeutic work which focuses on wildlife conservation. Examples of these include nature therapists working with endangered wolves and birds of prey in the Israeli wilderness, and the use of dolphins in the Caribbean.

Other projects closer to home include community initiatives and wildlife garden projects in London and Essex designed to address mental health and issues of rehabilitation for people with a diversity of needs.

This pioneering research work in the field of ecotherapy is still ongoing, but its preliminary findings confirm those from other research studies, indicating that subjective health benefits do exist.  People who take part in the therapy generally feel better for being ‘connected’ with nature and spending time outdoors, developing self-esteem and social inclusion through targeted activities. The therapeutic skills which harness this environment are however yet to be fully known or exploited by practitioners.

Although the initial research has produced positive results, Ambra warns of a need to produce further robust evidence such as health impact assessments of wildlife projects but confirms that collaborative, multi-centre educational development must continue. She therefore fully supports the assertion by English Nature that ‘partnerships between healthcare providers and nature organisations to share and exchange expertise could create new policies that recognise the interdependence between healthy people and healthy ecosystems.’

The themed issue of the British Medical Journal focused on the subject of human and animal health. It contained additional information about the healing power of wild animals, particularly with regards to depression; and the social and emotional benefits of pet ownership.

Ambra is helping to push for the further development of ecotherapy education in the forthcoming months as she embarks on a period of collaborative work with the University of Genova in Italy.  As part of her link with the University of Genova, she will be delivering courses on ecotherapy and it is understood that these programmes will be the very first ecotherapy training courses available in Europe.

She travels to Italy to start her lecture programme during April 2006.

Ambra Burls is Senior Lecturer and Researcher at Anglia Ruskin University, Chelmsford, where she is responsible for undergraduate and post-graduate programmes in health and social studies.  Formerly a mental health senior nurse for more than two decades, she has extensive experience of mental health practice.  She has combined her experience in this field with her interests in the development of environmentally sound human behaviours, leading her to engage in Professional Doctorate research into ecotherapy and its applications to practice and education. 

The central element in ecotherapy is the use of nature as a vehicle for therapy and well-being; it is also intrinsically about the benefits that people can bring to the environment through the environmentally sound and sustainable activities which are inherent to the development of a reconnection with nature. Although Ambra’s study is mainly focused on the benefits for marginalised or vulnerable people, there are indications that ecotherapy could be restorative for a wider diversity of people.