Green Therapy Grows into Medical Mainstream
Kathyrn Cummings walks along a wooded nature trail in Hickory Hill Park near Iowa City, with her patient a few steps ahead of her. She stops every so often to examine the colors in a leaf or point out the number of rings in a tree stump. It’s the third time this week that she has visited a park to walk the trails, but not because she enjoys the sunshine.
Cummings, an assisted-living counselor, works with a nonverbal, disabled woman, who suffers from severe anxiety and aggression issues. When the woman begins to show signs of an impending panic attack or begins to clench her fists out of frustration, Cummings knows it’s time to go for a walk. Taking a hike is often the only way to relieve the woman’s symptoms.
This is just one example of how interest in the therapeutic benefits of spending time outdoors is starting to gain attention in the medical mainstream. In the Midwest, more people are responding to evidence of an important link between nature and positive mental health. Physicians and psychiatrists have begun to prescribe treatments that allow patients to explore what is being called green therapy or eco therapy. These treatments use natural environments as opposed to solely prescribing medication.
A 2009 study conducted by Columbia University researchers found about 10 percent of Americans, or 27 million people, took prescription anti-depressants — nearly double that of only a decade ago. And only 30 percent of those people were also receiving therapy. The high rate of prescribing drugs, paired with the shortage of counseling, has spurred attention to unconventional approaches to treatment.
Scientists now know that natural exercise outdoors restores attention and the brain’s ability to focus, soothes aggression, and eases symptoms of mild depression. Green therapy can also include a variety of other elements, drawing from agriculture, gardening, conservation, exercise and animal care. It offers solutions — or supplemental help — for those who have few options other than antidepressants. Unlike prescription drugs, green approaches are low cost, have no negative side effects, and are as close to outside as the nearest doorway.
In Iowa, a handful of organizations are practicing forms of green therapy. Physical activity outside is usually encouraged when considering how to help a patient, says Stephen Trefz, the executive director for the Community Mental Health Center of Eastern Iowa in Iowa City.
“There is a good body of literature that suggests it is a good antidote to depression,” says Trefz. “It is certainly a treatment modality that is used in conjunction with other therapy.”
Harmony House Health Care Center in Waterloo, Iowa, provides care for the elderly and people with brain injuries or debilitating illnesses, such as multiple sclerosis and Huntington’s disease. The staff at Harmony House have employed what is known as horticulture therapy since 1985. Horticulture therapy is simply the act of gardening for healing purposes. Harmony House has more than 35 different garden areas, a hands-on courtyard area, and a 3,000 square-foot greenhouse. It is one of the most expansive and effective green therapy services in the country.
Kelly Conrad, a licensed horticulture therapist at Harmony House, is emphatic about the benefits of this type of therapy. “Horticulture therapy helps improve patient memory, relieves stress, improves muscle coordination, and most importantly, it encourages social activity and helps self esteem,” says Conrad.
Deb Rahe is a counselor at Albrecht Acres, an outdoor summer camp near Sherill, Iowa, which serves children with special needs. The camp has created activities that are similar to the therapeutic strategies of adventure or wilderness therapies. By fishing, hiking, swimming, and interacting with animals at a petting zoo, children challenge themselves and build confidence to overcome troubling behavior that, in the past, ostracized them in social situations.
“Being in the woods, exploring, touching, feeling, and smelling the world around them gives our campers a perspective of what this world is. We are very aware that these activities outside in nature are crucial to the camp and important to our campers as a therapeutic experience,” says Rahe.
It is not just outdoor therapies that can benefit the mental health of an individual. Hospitals that provide patients with “green space” — from courtyard gardens to windows that overlook natural environments — can help a person’s recovery process. Certain studies conducted by Texas A&M University have shown that patients who were able to view natural environments required fewer painkillers, less medication, and fewer negative evaluation comments in their medical records.
Mercy Hospital in Iowa City is one of several hospitals in the Midwest that see the benefits from a type of therapy that physicians or psychiatrists can’t otherwise provide within hospital walls. Intensive care unit patients have access to outdoor patios, and a majority of the lobby areas were designed to include large bay windows that overlook natural landscapes.
“Unfortunately, there are patients who are unable to go outside, and we understand the effect this can have on their well-being. Our solution was to create a healing garden and atrium, large windows that overlook gardens and trees, and other indoor gardens on the floors through out the hospital,” said Julie Johnston, president of the Mercy Foundation. “It is a great respite for patients and their families.”
By the end of Kathyrn Cummings’ walk, she, too, is feeling better about herself. Working with those with special needs requires a certain level of patience, and maintaining that patience can be draining. It is not just people with disabilities or mental disorders who can benefit from the wide range of green therapy, she says, almost everyone can.
“We both go back to her home with a better attitude,” Cummings says of her client. “The stress just isn’t there. She gets to take a break from the commotion, and so do I.”
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