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  • Writer's pictureLaura Ryder

Breaking up with nature: the fall out...

I shared a piece of work earlier this month looking at the relationship between nature and mental health (to read it click here). The work is part of a larger thesis looking at the case for taking therapy outdoors. My research led me to look at the other side of the coin too, and what a disconnect from nature might mean. I hadn't explicitly thought about it from that angle before; it was, and still is, thought-provoking. The gist of what I looked at is below. I'd be very interested in your thoughts.

The underlying source of our problems is our separation from the natural world.
(Cohen, 1993, Counselling responsibly section, para. 3)

There is an ever-growing awareness of environmental issues, and far from politely lingering in the waiting room for a post-appointment pick-up these issues are accompanying clients into therapy sessions.

A recent study concluded that mental health will be negatively impacted by climate change going forward (Obradovich et al., 2018), but there is evidence that the negative impact is already happening. Though currently not included in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), in 2017 the American Psychological Association published a report linking climate change and mental health, and defined eco-anxiety as a “chronic fear of environmental doom” (Clayton et al., 2017, p. 68).

There is a belief that the roots of mental health problems can be traced back to our relationship (or lack of it) with the natural world. In his seminal work, Clinebell (1996, p. 13) suggests clients suffer from “conscious or subconscious ecological angst”. Buzzell and Chalquist (2009) propose the grief and fear clients bring into therapy rooms all over the world are actually responses to a world in distress. Pikhala (2018) concurs, believing that beneath a “mask of apathy” (p. 563) people have deep feelings about a world in danger.

Berger and McLeod (2006) describe life in the past as one when people lived more as a part of nature:

“the individual was part of the family, which was part of a tribe, which was part of nature, which was part of the universe. Each of these elements was connected to, embedded in, and interdependent on the other” (p. 85).

Mayer et al. (2009) point out that life as we know it - with its office buildings, temperature controlled cars and people living physically close to each other and not at all close to nature – has existed “in geological time….only the tick of the clock” (p. 635). Bird (2007, p. 4) suggests it “would be surprising if the rapid disconnection of humans from nature in just a few generations did not cause some difficulty”.

Jordan (2015) believes industrialisation and the resulting distance between man and nature is the cause of psychological distress. Furthermore, he believes that the distance between humans and the natural world is “at the heart of the rampant ecological destruction inflicted by man upon the natural world” (Jordan, 2015, p. 364).

Cohen (1993) describes hurting the earth as hurting ourselves:

Since we are biologically a seamless continuum of the natural world, as we separate from, conquer and hurt it, we do the same to our inner child. Our inner child senses painful abandonment which produces dysfunctions and continual needs for support and pacification from our closeted way of life. This vicious circle is the core of our problems. (The problem section, para. 6)

Buzzell and Chalquist (2009) believe that because links between mental health and lifestyles that impact negatively on the earth are not being made, “we remain mystified about why we feel so much pain” (p. 26).


Bird, W. (2007). Natural thinking: Investigating the links between the national environment,

biodiversity and mental health. Report prepared for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Retrieved from

Berger, R. & McLeod, J., (2006). Incorporating nature into therapy: A framework for

practice. Journal of Systemic Therapies, 25(2), 80-94.

Buzzell, L., & Chalquist, C. (2009). Psyche and nature in a circle of healing. In L. Buzzell &

C. Chalquist (Eds.) [Ebook], Ecotherapy: Healing with nature in mind (pp. 22-29). Sierra Club Books. Retrieved from

Clayton, S., Manning, C. M., Krygsman, K., & Speiser, M. (2017). Mental Health and Our

Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance. American Psychological Association, and ecoAmerica. Retrieved from

Clinebell, H. (1996). Ecotherapy: Healing ourselves, healing the earth. Fortress Press.

Cohen, M.J. (1993). Counselling with nature: Catalyzing sensory moments that let earth

nurture. Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 6(1),

Jordan, M., (2015). Nature and therapy: Understanding counselling and psychotherapy in

outdoor spaces. Routledge.

Mayer, F., Frantz, C., Bruehlman-Senecal, E., & Dolliver, K. (2009). Why Is Nature

Beneficial?. Environment And Behavior, 41(5), 607-643. doi: 10.1177/0013916508319745

Obradovich, N., Migliorini, R., Paulus, M. P., & Rahwan, I. (2018). Empirical evidence of

mental health risks posed by climate change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 115(43), 10953–10958.

Pikhala, P. (2018). Eco-anxiety, tragedy, and hope: psychological and spiritual dimensions

of climate change. Zygon Journal of Religion and Science, 53(2), 545-569.

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