Stress is a growing problem across the globe. The World Health Organization (WHO, 2017) ranks stress-induced disorders, such as depression, as a leading cause of disability worldwide. In response to the growing number of individuals suffering from stress-related mental disorders, researchers in Scandinavia have designed a nature-based therapy model for those on stress-leave. In 2001, The Healing Garden in Alnarp was established at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, and soon after, in 2010, Nacadia Healing Forest Garden was constructed at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.
This emerging model of green care is based on findings that individuals suffering from stress experience limited cognitive, emotional, and social resources, which often makes it difficult to think, learn or otherwise problem-solve in ways that might be required, for example, in talk therapy (Stigsdotter & Grahn, 2002; 2003). According to Kaplan’s Attention Restoration Theory, spending time in natural environments helps promote automatic relaxation of the nervous system, which results in restoration of the affected systems. In this way, spending time in nature greatly enables the stress-recovery process (Kaplan, 1995).
At Nacadia in Denmark, nature is combined with mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, horticultural therapy, and socialization. Throughout treatment, clients move through various “rooms” within nature, with each room offering benefits at different stages of recovery. Wild but protected nature that is rich in species, for example, offers comfort in early stages of treatment, whereas open meadows and working gardens appeal more to those with increasing energy (Corazon, Stigsdotter, Jensen & Nilsson, 2010).
In 2014, I travelled to Denmark and received training from the head psychologist at Nacadia, and over the course of 8 months, I had the privilege of working with stressed individuals at a therapy garden called Tranegaardshaven. In retrospect, I see that I was quite spoiled receiving my master’s training in this setting. Not only did I, as caregiver, benefit from working in nature (with feelings of calm and connectedness permeating my days), but I have yet to witness the same gentle yet powerful healing process transpire in my office-based work since this time.
Nature-based therapy isn’t about stepping backwards or rejecting modern society. It is about engaging with the elements on our planet that promote healing at a basic level and incorporating this with the empirically supported therapies of our time.
It is a sustainable form of healing, for not only ourselves, but for the world at large. As we cultivate greater environmental awareness throughout the course of treatment, we begin to support an overarching, cyclical healing process.
This, I believe, is the way of the future in global mental health care.
Corazon, S. S., Stigsdotter, U. K., Jensen, A. G. C. & Nilsson, K. (2010). Development of the nature-based therapy concept for patients with stress-related illness at the Danish Healing Forest Garden Nacadia. Journal of Therapeutic Horticulture, 20, 35-50.
Kaplan, S. (1995). The restorative benefits of nature: Towards an integrative framework. Journal
of Environmental Psychology, 15, 169-182.
Stigsdotter, U. K. & Grahn, P. (2002). What makes a garden a healing garden? Journal of
Therapeutic Horticulture, 13, 60-69.
Stigsdotter, U. K. & Grahn, P. (2003). Experiencing a garden: A healing garden for people
suffering from burnout diseases. Journal of Therapeutic Horticulture, 14, 38-48.
World Health Organization (2017). Depression and other common mental disorders: Global
health estimates. Retrieved from http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/10665/254610/1/WHO-MSD-MER-2017.2-eng.pdf