L

Meditation

I first learnt to meditate in 1970.

L

Counselling

I am trained in counselling and group facilitation.

L

Ecotour

I have lead ecotour holidays to many countries including France and Bulgaria.

Ancient yews

I am a founder member of the Ancient Yew Group and have exhibited and sold my photographs of yews internationally.

 

About Andy

A lot of people ask me how I got to become an ecotherapist and what do I do with people when I’m out on a walk.

I have a professional background in psychology, counselling and group work. And I also have a lifetime’s experience of taking people out in to nature.

If you want to get a feel for how I work and and example of what I’ve done in the past scroll down and have a read.

More About Andy

Looking back over the past few decades I can see various threads that have come together to bring me to this place. Here are some of those threads.

I was appointed as Psychologist Specialising in Ecotherapy to the North East London Foundation Trust in October 2009 and worked with the Trust until June 2011 when the post was axed as part of the NHS cuts. The work involved five main objectives: to run ecotherapy activities in nature for mental health service users; to mentor others who are working for the Trust and who want to use ecotherapy in their work; to collaborate on externally validated research and evaluation with a university; to run training workshops and longer programmes on ecotherapy; and lastly to disseminate the results of our work to a wider audience. In that short time we ran some interesting and successful programmes.

Between 2004 and March 2007 I was theTHERAPI Project Manager at Thames Chase Community Forest where I managed eleven projects to do with the relationship between people’s health and the green environment. Costing over half a million pounds it was funded by the Countryside Agency, local authorities and PCTs. The Forestry Commission used THERAPI as one of their national champion case studies of what can be done for improving health through by using the green environment, cf their web site:

http://www.forestry.gov.uk/pdf/fce-external-therapi-final-edit-june-07-ver-01.pdf/$FILE/fce-external-therapi-final-edit-june-07-ver-01.pdf

I have been an advisor to Countryside Agency and Natural England, and was funded to create a forum for senior managers in Thames Gateway who are working strategically to integrate the development of health, environment and planning to ensure multifunctional gains. As part of this contract I also organised a regional conference in London on this theme in 2006, the key speaker was Chris Baines.

I produced a research review and policy report for the National Community Forests on the health and green environment agendaand lead a conference on this theme in Sheffield early 2007.

I am trained in leading conservation groups and in winter 2006-7 I ran my first successful Green Gym type programme (called Fit n’ Green) for long term mental health service users in Havering, funded by Capital Volunteering and aimed at engaging service users in mainstream conservation volunteering.

I have been a conference speaker on Ecotherapy on various occasions, for example at UWE in Bristol in February 2007 for the Healthy Communities Research Forum and at the Mind Conference on Ecotherapy in 2008.

I worked for some time as a psychology lecturer and freelance management development consultant in communications and conflict resolution.

I have also worked as a consultant supporting organisations managing change to sustainable business, and lectured at Brunel University on sustainable development.

I co-lead my first three day ecotherapyworkshop in 1992 at the University of Surrey for trainee therapists and facilitators.

In 1986 Jonathan Cape published the first photographic guide to dragonflies under my authorship. I have subsequently contributed to other field guides on dragonflies and was president of the British Dragonfly Society for 8 years where I fundraised for their first full time officer and was made an honorary member for my contributions to the Society.

I am one of the four founders of the Ancient Yew Group www.ancient-yew.org and have had national and regional photographic exhibitions on ancient yews.

Ecotherapy has helped ease my depression. Even if I didn’t feel low I would still come on these walks. It is so relaxing stepping back from the hustle and bustle of a town, appreciating woodland is something everyone should do.

Mental Health Service User

How I work

I usually work with groups (but not exclusively) and I’m going to focus on group working here. It is important at the start of the session to get us all physically relaxed. Releasing tensions but more importantly getting people in touch with their bodies. Our bodies are part of nature and so exercise is a way of beginning the process of connecting. I remind people that we are made of the same stuff as the rest of nature. Our bodies are up to 70% water and the clean water we drink has been circulating through life forms for millions of years. Likewise the food we eat, and our breath comes courtesy of all the plants around us. Being in touch with our physical self also brings us into the present. It is from the full experience of the present that we can open up our senses and increase our contact with nature around us.

To further increase that sense of being in the now I follow the physical exercises with a breathing exercise based on meditation. I also encourage people to let go of memories of what has happened that day and what they imagine might occur later; to let go and enjoy being wherever they are.

From ego to eco

I am guiding people away from ego to eco. From little self to the bigger world that is alive around them. In this process some people can have a profound sense of being connected to nature at a deep level. The healing thoughts can come from a realisation that we, humans and animals and plants, share the same fundamental qualities: we are born and we will one day die; we live and deal with good and bad times; we are wounded and we heal. It is possible to break out of our isolated self and recognise we participate in a wider ecological self where matter, air and social connections pass through us continuously.

 When the loosening up and mindfulness activities are finished I remind everyone to stay with the open relaxed state we are in. We then move off on a leisurely walk through grassland and woods, open and intimate greenery. In winter maybe we go and feed the ducks, in summer we listen to birdsong. I encourage a sensory openness to smells and sounds which further takes people away from their possible preoccupation with self and outwards to a wider connectedness.

Wild Nature

At the core of ecotherapy is the combination of increased awareness of the present and immersion in wild nature. Recovery is often spoken of in terms of changing thoughts and feelings in order to live a happier more positive life. CBT and counselling are two of the methods used for achieving this. I think this is fine and I’m interested in something different. If a person can put aside for a moment their internal dialogue and imaginings of what might happen and begin to pay full attention to what is happening in the present then they can open up to a different way of seeing. If this different way of seeing, attending to the world, is done in nature then the work of ecotherapy can begin. There is a quality of experience that is different when people connect to nature as opposed to human made environments. In wild nature we are surrounded by other living things which grow of their own volition according to their own character. They face similar challenges of survival, and have a beauty we are drawn to.

Sharing the experience

Participating in a group enlarges the experience. We can chat, get to know other people and share our wonderment. If you just want to be on your own in nature that’s fine too, the permissive atmosphere allows for many choices. And for those who are uncertain of others a group walk allows you to chose your distance and how much you want to get involved or not.

My invitation to you is to put a bit of eco into your life and prevent stress taking over. Shake off city life for a bit and reconnecting with life around you. Listen to the woods singing.

I managed to get in touch with my inner peace which has been missing for a long time since childhood. Laying down in the grass relaxing – it got me thinking/feeling the same way I used to as a child when everything was easy.

Occupational Therapist

Getting to Know the Countryside

In 2003 I worked as the project manager coordinating and implementing an innovative programme of eleven projects exploring the potential health benefits of the green outdoors. I was part of a team at Thames Chase Community Forest, Upminster, Essex, on the fringes of NE London. One of the projects was entitled Getting to Know the Countryside.

The aim of the Getting to Know the Countryside programmes was to break down barriers to accessing the green environment for people experiencing mental health problems. It also aimed to encouraged people to gain therapeutic benefits from being outdoors. The two six week programmes involved groups meeting for three hours a week at the Millennium Centre in Eastbrookend Country Park, Dagenham, East London. Mental health users with their occupational therapists met and had lunch together at the Centre. They then spent two hours in the park with a wildlife expert or artist being introduced to nature. The expectations of the myself as project manager and the occupational therapists were developed from discussions with clients. The expectations were that participants would gain benefits if:
– the place was easy to get to by public transport;
– the facilities and people made it welcoming;
– there was a social side in meeting others in a group;
– it was familiar to them because of repeated visits;
– there was a range of activities they could do there.
The responses were collected through structured feedback, discussion groups and observations made during the events. In summary the responses from users and occupational therapists were very positive.
People said they:
– felt emotionally better for being taken into nature and shown things of interest,
– enjoyed all the different activities,
– learnt interesting information about the countryside that made it more attractive,
– gained personal confidence, and overcame personal challenges,
– enjoyed socialising in the group,
– felt increasingly comfortable with the location,
– would go back to the Millennium Centre or visit their local open space again,
– appreciated and were reassured by the positive attitude of the Centre staff,
– thought the facilities were good on the whole,
– thought the country park was easy to get to by public transport.
Evaluation The Getting to Know the Countryside programmes clearly had specific attractions and benefits that related to the users being outdoors in a green environment. This outcome is consistent with academic research in the field which underlines the therapeutic value of people being outdoors in nature. Experiences in nature are a low cost and easy to manage option in the professional’s choice of therapeutic interventions.
Participants People suffering from emotional distress and a variety of psychiatric disorders who were living in the community and being supported by the Community Mental Health Team (CMHT) in Havering (part of NE London Mental Health Trust). There were two programmes based around two groups, over 65s and under 65s with 10 and 11 people in them respectively.
Was the project sustainable?
A further significant outcome of the project was that the Occupational Therapists (O/T) felt sufficiently impressed by the outcomes for their clients that they decided to continue to offer experiences in nature as part of their ongoing work.
Since the project ended in Summer 2004:
– Two users went on to join a local conservation group;
– One O/T bought books on trees and pond life and purchased nets etc to take out on regular walks she organised;
– One O/T trained up to lead walks and ran weekly sessions from the Forest Visitor Centre. Walking for Health didn’t suit most users;
– As a result of the success of the walking programme a cycling project was launched from the same visitor centre and 30 users still regularly go cycling each week (2010).
Some quotes from users and O/Ts
“That time you asked us just to stop and listen was good, we heard the skylarks and other birds, it calmed Axxxx down who was getting agitated. We could listen to bird songs on a tape and then go on our own bird walk. Some of them had not heard a cuckoo before.”
“It is less threatening, not formal therapy.”
“It is relaxing to be there. It was good for confidence building. A formal group can be intimidating.”
“There were benefits gained in users mood and mental health.”
“There were opportunities which allowed discussion of everyday things and also just laughing and joking about things.”
“It was good to have a common purpose as a group.”
“It was spot on. I thought it went very well. A success. It would have been better if the conservation day had been later say the 2nd or 3rd session so they could have got used to the place and got to appreciate it before doing conservation on it. Also it was a bit strenuous for some not used to exercise even though we would not think it was.”
“It was less formal than a meeting or group session. ”
“The fact that they felt they could use the resource themselves was good. And it promoted independence in those that made their own way there.”
“It helped a lot of them with confidence to take the next step. They may not go out on their own but they might now go out with friends when they would not have done in the past.”
For a copy of the full report please contact Andy McGeeney

The Skylark

Once a week a group of men and women over 65 living in the East of London met up with their occupational therapists to socialize and get support. Going through the life changes of retirement, bereavement and increasing age seemed to have brought on anxiety and depression for many of the group members and they were struggling to cope, but getting something from meeting as a group.

Meeting the group and agreeing aims

I was asked if I would introduce the group to the countryside and I agreed to meet up with them to find out who they were and what they wanted to do. I asked them if they liked going for walks and seeing nature, yes someone had a bird feeder in their garden, but despite liking the countryside no one actually went for walks. Why was that? Well they weren’t sure where to go, how to get there and if it was ok to walk on open land – someone might tell them to clear off. And what do you do when you get there anyway? We talked about various options. At the time I worked for a Community Forest which encouraged people to get involved in the great outdoors by among other things improving access and information for people living in towns and cities. Here we had a group that I felt could benefit from being in nature and yet they did not know that wild green space was near to where they lived. There seemed to be so many barriers to these people being in nature even though they liked the idea. I was confident that if I could give them a start they would see that the barriers were self created and not insurmountable. I said to them, if I designed a programme of walks that got rid of or reduced these barriers to them going in to nature would they be interested and come with me? Yes was the answer, they would come. I agreed to go away and design a programme that was interesting, easy to access from where they lived, and safe.

Learning to tune in to Nature

The idea was to introduce them to Nature in places they could go back to later on if they wanted to. One of the first things we did was go for a walk across the local county park, a wild area of woods, river, ponds and open grassland surrounded by housing estates and industrial sites but big enough to feel you were somewhere special in nature. It was a spring day and we were out listening to the birds and trying to distinguish their different calls and songs. People were enjoying themselves in the fresh air but not really noticing anything unless it was pointed out. I realized that these people had not learnt how to observe in the way that came so naturally to me that I wasn’t even aware I was doing it. My eyes go to any slight movement in the bushes or a dark spot crossing the sky and immediately I have a reference point to many other experiences that enable me to classify and know that I’m looking at a green woodpecker or a thrush. By the time most people have focused on the right area the bird had disappeared, so the beginning of the walk was frustrating for some. Fortunately birdsong was easier to pinpoint and separate out from background noise.

Rising above it all

At one stage we were walking out across a large open area of meadow and I was at the back to make sure no one got left behind. I turned and noticed a woman next to me looking a bit anxious. What’s up, I said, are you ok? No I feel scared, I don’t like it out here. I asked the group to hold on a minute. She was getting increasingly anxious and apprehensive about moving on. The group stopped and gathered round, some trying to reassure her. Initially I was at a loss as to what to do as we were a long way out in the open grassland and verbal reassurance was having no effect on her anxiety about being in the open. As I stood there next her to listening to what she was saying another sound came in to my consciousness, and without thinking I spontaneously said to the group, listen can you hear that song it’s a skylark and its singing right above us. Everyone strained to listen to where the song was coming from. I explained that the skylark was high up above us and was not easy to see; but we did eventually spot the bird as it hung suspended in the sky, pouring out its rippling song. As a group we became absorbed in the song and watching the skylark being so alive. Eventually the bird cascaded down to earth in stages and disappeared in the long grass. The somber tired looking group came alive with excitement. People began talking with interest, A couple of people said they had never heard a skylark before in their lives and had wondered what it sounded like; it was exciting for everyone to be engaged in the activity of the world. I felt the members of the group had been in the moment for a while, not worrying about death or loneliness or whatever it was that filled their minds so often. The skylark had broken a spell over them.

I suggested we walk on and keep our eyes and ears out for more birds. I turned again to the woman who had been so frozen with fear a few minutes ago and asked how she was. I’m fine she said, that was so beautiful hearing the skylark, I forgot all about my being frightened, and I’m ok now.

Alive in Nature

So what was happening to her? Was she momentarily distracted from her panic attack, did she forget what it was she usually feels out in open spaces? Maybe, but I think something more was happening. Nature is alive as we are. It feels different to be standing in a field as compared to a street with lampposts and telegraph poles above you. I think the woman was distracted by me saying, what’s that, listen, but it wasn’t momentary; she was taken out of her confining self with all its anxious thought patterns and drawn to a bird singing, some other being that was alive, real and outside of her. When we watch a tv screen we are still in our heads, imagining; when we watch and listen to living things around us we are participating in a sensory way that takes us out of our confining selves and reminds us we are full participants of the natural world.