Suicide rates have been on the rise in recent years: in the United States alone, the rate has increased by more than 25% since 1999. According to the American Psychological Association, approximately 44,800 Americans died by suicide in 2020. With such alarming statistics, it's important to explore every possible avenue for prevention and care. Meanwhile, emerging research is encouraging the practice of nature therapy for multiple mental health benefits.
For mental health professionals, teachers, and others who care for human beings, alarm bells have been going off.
While there is no one silver bullet for suicide prevention, more and more research is supporting the idea of human exposure to the natural world—or nature therapy—as a powerful step in the right direction.
What is Nature Therapy?
Nature therapy (also referred to as ecotherapy, green therapy, or horticulture therapy, among others) is a form of therapy that uses exposure to the natural environment for a variety of health benefits. While programs can specify or differ on the activities involved (for instance, some programs focus on physical outdoor activities or bonding with animals), nature therapy generally includes at least a trained professional and an environment that contains
Incredibly enough, even exposure to the sights and sounds of nature without physically being near them (using photography, music, or video, etc.) can already yield positive effects. Nature therapy is an applied practice that emerged from ecopsychology, and is based on the premise that we as human beings have a connection to nature. And so far, some notable benefits include:
- Improved cognition and problem-solving skills;
- Fewer symptoms displayed by children diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity (ADHD);
- Lower blood C-reative proteins and cortisol levels, as well as reduced feelings of anger, fear, stress, and aggression;
- Reduced feelings of depression;
- Reduced symptoms of patients diagnosed with Alzheimer’s; and
- Improved social skills and self-esteem
With such glowing and optimistic findings, what about utilizing the potential of nature therapy as a method of suicide prevention?
A 2015 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that participants who went on a 90-minute walk in a natural setting reported lower levels of rumination (i.e., repetitive and negative thinking) than those who walked in an urban setting. But the article, with some urgency, notes that "Never before has such a large percentage of humanity been so far removed from nature; more than 50% of people now live in urban areas, and by 2050, this proportion will be 70%."
The study's authors hypothesized that "the calming and centering effects of nature" may help to reduce suicidal ideation.
Years later, a 2019 article titled Nature and mental health: An ecosystem service perspective by the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS) journal, Science Advances, stated: "Human well-being is linked to the natural environment in myriad ways."
While further research is still needed to indisputably confirm the link between nature therapy and suicide prevention, there are already studies that suggest if not prove positive impacts of nature exposure on a person’s physical and mental health.
Nature Therapy is Not a New Idea
Many of the great thinkers of our day have already written their opinions on this theory.
The naturalist Rachel Carson, credited by many with setting off the environmental movement in America with the 1962 publication of her influential book Silent Spring, once wrote that “Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature—the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”
Among Albert Einstein's most famous quotes is: “Look deep into nature… and then you will understand everything better.”
Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect who designed Central Park and many other public green spaces in America wrote that: “The enjoyment of scenery employs the mind without fatigue and yet exercises it; tranquilizes it and yet enlivens it; and thus, through the influence of the mind over the body gives the effect of refreshing rest and reinvigoration to the whole system.”
Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of Treasure Island, wrote that “It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men’s hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air, that emanation from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.”
The brooding writer from the 1950s, Sylvia Plath, suffered from depression for most of her life. She made three suicide attempts before succeeding in killing herself in 1963. Yet she once wrote: “I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery—air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, ‘This is what it is to be happy.'”
What if we could get more people out into nature, not just to promote environmental sustainability, but actively save human lives?
Nature Therapy for Suicide Prevention
Biophilia (meaning “love of living things and nature” in Greek) is a study that posits that human beings have a natural affinity for nature and the natural world. In other words, we actually need contact with the natural world. Biophilia promotes an approach that uses exposure to nature and natural settings as a way to improve one’s health. Growing research is already suggesting that nature therapy may also help with serious ailments such as ADHD (in children), schizophrenia, and Alzheimer’s.
At a.c.e. Nature, we ask: “What can we do about this? How can we get more people outside into the natural environment, more regularly, as one of the key remedies for suicide prevention?” We hope to engage more people in the answers to these questions.
How to Get Started with Nature TherapyIf this is getting you interested in nature therapy, there are some easy ways to get started. Here are some suggestions for nature activities that are available to most Americans living in the United States, or almost anywhere in the world:
- Spend time outside every day, even if it's just for 10 to 15 minutes. Take advantage of nearby parks or green spaces!
- Get your hands dirty! Gardening has also been shown to provide mental health benefits, so consider starting a small garden or tending to some potted plants.
- If you live in an urban area, try finding some green space near you where you can go for walks or picnics with friends or family. Or, better yet, create your own!
- Make an effort to disconnect from technology and spend time in silence surrounded by nature. This can be especially beneficial if you live in a noisy city.
- Explore nature with your community! Join a hiking or camping club and hopefully even make new friends in the process.
- Participate in nature-based community outreach programs. Do not underestimate the combined healing power of teamwork, nature, and altruism!
Nature Therapy: Let's Do This!Nature has long been revered for its ability to soothe and calm the mind—and science can back up those claims! If you're looking for ways to improve your mental health, consider nature therapy as a viable, sustainable option. And if someone close to you is showing suicidal tendencies, spend quality time with them in nature to help balance their energies and remind them that they are loved and cared for.
There are many ways to get started, so give it a try—for yourself, and with those you love. Who knows: you may just find yourself feeling happier and healthier than ever before.
If you believe in the transformative power of nature, join us in living the eco-centric future! Connect with us here.