Photo of a woman pressing her face on a horse's head.

One of the most powerful societal applications of eco-healing is in the field of mental health. At a societal and policy level, green exercise has become a legitimate therapeutic choice for those suffering from clinical depression, anxiety, and stress (McCaffery, et al, 2012; MIND Report, 2007; Morita, et al, 2007). The mental health of the unemployed, homeless, recovering alcoholics and drug abusers, older people, veterans, or disenfranchised youth are impacted positively by movements such as care farming, animal-assisted therapy, healing gardens in hospitals and schools, and greening inner city areas (Kuo & Sullivan, 2001; Hine, et al, 2008; Violette & Wilmarth, 2009; Bare, 2012).

In addition to helping people restore mental health and wellbeing, nature and involvement in environmental efforts increases happiness, which has a positive influence on health, providing one of many economic benefits to society (Maller, et al, 2005; Nisbet, et al, 2011).

Green Job

Since he was 13 years old, Jake had been in and out of various New York State prison settings for petty theft, selling drugs, and assault. Prison life was all he knew—most of his friends were fellow inmates, so when he broke the law, it felt like coming home. Jake’s transformation began when he started helping out at the greenhouse on Riker’s Island. Growing and taking care of plants was like taking care of himself in a way that he never experienced.

Jakes experience at Rikers Island greenhouse inspired him to get a job in a local nursery when he was released. He has remained out of prison for five years.

(Adapted from Doing Time in the Garden: Life Lessons through Prison Horticulture)

Visit A Park. On a sunny weekend day, take writing utensils and a tablet with you to an urban park. Sit on a bench and observe relationships. What are the children, parents, young adults, older adults, and animals doing?  How are they relating? If you wish, draw a schematic of the park and lines of relationships. What does this park tell you about human interactions? What doesn’t it tell you? What could be improved? For example, you may watch a child who is playing alone be invited by others to join, or you may observe two close friends engaged in creative play.

Volunteer.  Many cities have volunteer clean-up programs serving their parks, local recycling, or roadways. Volunteer to clean up your city, county, or state. Spend a day in nature with others to beautify urban environments or restore nature’s beauty.

Nature Improves Mental Health and Enhances Social Interaction. Prolific researcher Dr. Frances Kuo and her colleagues have conducted studies on nature’s positive impact on school dropout rates, concentration in children diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), neighborhood aggression and violence, cognitive test scores, and life expectancy. Kuo’s article “Green Streets, Not Mean Streets” suggests that even a few trees or bushes in inner-city areas reduce criminal and violent behavior (Kuo & Sullivan, 2001).

Care Farm Movement. A growing movement in the UK and parts of Europe, care farming is a program that promotes physical and mental health in vulnerable populations—such as people with depression or addiction issues, children with autism, young offenders, and adults on probation—by having them work on local farms. Surveys conducted have shown that working on a care farm can significantly reduce feelings of anger, confusion, and depression, while increasing self-confidence and energy (Hine, et al, 2008).

Economic Realities. In 2005, depression alone cost the Australian economy $3.3 billion in lost productivity, inspiring Australian researcher Cecily Maller and colleagues to address the economic benefits of eco-healing. They produced a summary of research evidence suggesting that contact with nature may prevent mental health issues while enhancing health and wellbeing, thus benefitting the economy (Maller, et al, 2005).

Happiness. A 2011 review suggests that a disconnection from nature may have a detrimental effect on human happiness. Results from previous studies suggest that nature-relatedness is positively correlated with vitality, autonomy, personal growth, and purpose in life (Nisbet, et al, 2011).

Bare, S. (2012). Turning to nature after returning from Iraq. Huffington Post, January, 18.

Hine, R., Peacock, J., Pretty, J. (2008). Care farming in the UK: evidence and opportunities. Executive Summary, Report for Care Farming Initiative in the UK.

Kuo, F.E., et al. (1998). Fertile ground for community: Inner-city neighborhood common spaces. American Journal of Community Psychology; 26(6).

Kuo, F.E., Sullivan, W.C. (2001). Green streets, not mean streets. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Human-Environment Research Laboratory; 1(2). Condensed from: Kuo, F.E., Sullivan, W.C. (2001). Environment and crime in the inner city: does vegetation reduce crime? Environment and Behavior; 33(3), 343-367.

Kuo, F.E., Sullivan, W. C. (2001). Environment and crime in the inner city: does vegetation reduce crime?  Environment and Behavior;33(3), 343-367.

Kuo, F.E. (2001). Coping with poverty: impacts of environment and attention in the inner city. Environment and Behavior; 33(1), 15–34.

JIler, J. (2006). Doing Time in the Garden: Life Lessons through Prison Horticulture. Oakland, CA: New Village Press.

Maller, C., Townsend, M., Pryor, A., Brown, P., St. Leger, L. (2005). Healthy nature healthy people: ‘contact with nature’ as an upstream health promotion intervention for populations. Health Promotion International, 21.

McCaffery, R., Hansen, C., McCaffery, W. (2012) Garden walking for depression: a research report. Holistic Nursing Practice; 24(5), 252-259.

MIND. (2007). Executive Summary, The Green Agenda for Mental Health. Retrieved May 20, 2014.

MIND. (2007). Full report, The Green Agenda for Mental Health. Retrieved May 20, 2014.

Morita, E., Fukuda, S., et al. (2007). Psychological effects of forest environments on healthy adults: Shinrin-Yoku (forest air-bathing, walking) as a possible method of stress reduction. Public Health; 121(1), 54-63.

Nisbet, E., Zelenski, J.M., Murphy, S.M. (2011). Happiness is in our nature:  exploring nature relatedness as a contributor to subjective well-being. Journal of Happiness Studies;12, 303-322.

Sempik, J., Hine, R., Wilcox, D., Eds. (2012). Green Care: A Conceptual Framework, A Report of the Working Group on the Health Benefits of Green Care. Published by the European Cooperation in Science and Technology.

Sullivan, W.C., Kuo, F.E., DePoorter, S. (2004). The fruit of urban nature: vital neighborhood spaces. Environments and Behavior; 36(5), 678-700.

The Horticulture Society of New York’s website: Riker's Island Green House. Retrieved January 28, 2013.

Violette, K., and Wilmarth, M. (2009). “Hippotherapy: A Therapeutic Treatment Strategy,” Today in PT, March. Retrieved January 28, 2013.