THE SCENE: A counselor and a client are sitting across from each other, sometime around midday. The counselor is listening as the client processes aloud the issue that has been brought to the session: feelings of isolation. The counselor reflects what she hears, providing a safe and non-judgmental atmosphere for the client to explore his feelings. As the client pauses, looking for words to capture his experience of loneliness, he glances to his left and sees a single mallard duck floating on the pond beside which the counselor and client are sitting. He uses the duck as a metaphor for his feelings, and the session progresses from there.

Mallard duck swimming on a pond

If this scene doesn’t match your idea of what a typical therapy session looks like, you’re not alone. Most people, when they think of therapy, picture a client sitting in a chair in an office, with the counselor sitting nearby, taking notes on a clipboard. But ecotherapy has been gaining ground in the last two decades, and in ecotherapy, clients and counselors build a therapeutic relationship not in an office, but in an outdoor setting.

Ecotherapy combines the innate assets of nature with the benefits of talk therapy. The idea that immersing oneself in nature can be immensely beneficial isn’t new. Neither is the idea that the relationship and trust that develops between a client and counselor is integral to the therapeutic process. But these two ideas have seldom been combined in practice. Until now.

Ecotherapy was born out of ecopsychology, a field of study which proposes that 1) there is a deeply reciprocal relationship between humans and nature, and 2) when humans become disconnected from nature, both humans and nature suffer. In reconnecting with nature, healing for both humans and nature becomes possible. Ecotherapy is the practice of that reconnection and the utilization of nature as a way for clients to express themselves. The sensory awareness that is inevitably stimulated in an outdoor setting can often present poignant insights that would remain out of reach in a typical office setting.

Nature mandala - example of a directed activity in ecotherapy

So far, ecotherapy has been used with clients who experience: ADHD/ADD, anxiety, depression, dissociation, eating disorders, relationship issues, self-image issues, and substance use disorders. Ecotherapy practitioners see individuals, couples, families, and groups in nature.  Everything that is feasible in an enclosed office is also possible in a nature-based setting, with an enhanced possibility for discovery. Whether a client is doing a more directed activity such as creating an autumn-themed nature mandala to symbolize change in her life, or simply sitting in silence and focusing on the ground beneath in order to come back to the body in a time of dissociation, in ecotherapy, nature works as a co-therapist.

When I take a client into nature, we work to build trust in and use connection with the Earth as a catalyst to understand more deeply what the client is seeking to uncover. As a counselor practicing ecotherapy, I am able to provide a setting for clients to sustainably explore truths that exist for them and can be found:

inside thought / inside forests

alongside family / alongside lakes

through words / through meadows

with possibilities unhindered by walls, and as wide as the horizon.

If you believe that you and/or a loved one would benefit from ecotherapy, please contact the Fountain Hill Center at (616) 456-1178 or to set up an individual, couples, or group session with Sam Lemmer.

Sam is currently completing her counseling internship at The Fountain Hill Center, while pursuing her Master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health at Western Michigan University. As an ecotherapy practitioner, she invites clients to come see what insights lie in their own walks with nature, and it is with gratitude that she walks alongside.