14 December 2016

I have been leading two hour ecotherapy sessions on a Wednesday in Eastbrookend Country Park Dagenham, East London since 2009.

They are open to anyone although I have targeted people who have experienced emotional and mental distress. Numbers of people attending a session have ranged from one to nearly 20. On average I would say there have been about eight of us going out each week.

The fact that people have kept coming back each week, and that they look and say they are more contented at the end of the walk, suggests we must be doing something worthwhile. On top of that I carried out a small scale study a couple of years ago which confirmed our sense that people received multiple well-being benefits from attending. You can read the report of the research elsewhere on the website.

I made the decision in October, as part of my own personal development, to stop offering the Wednesday sessions. I could see an identified need for people who were experiencing mental health issues. I was skilled and experienced at offering support to these people……. and I was going to stop doing it. It didn’t seem right. I felt very uncomfortable thinking of how I would explain to the regulars that I was going to stop offering the walks.And yet I had to think of my own ability to offer what I had and to develop my capacity. I had seen so many people who offer support to others continuing to do so because they felt they should, and I didn’t want to do the same. For me to be effective the work has to come from the heart.

The week after I made my decision I went to the session with some trepidation. I explained to the group what I was planning to do, and said I would stop the walks in two weeks time. Many were understandably upset to think of the sessions stopping. I also received many thanks from the group for my work and support. One man said it was the best thing that had happened to him. It was lovely to hear the endorsement of ecotherapy but it only made it harder to let go.

We then had a group discussion about what could replace the Well-being in Nature walks. I suggested people could go out on their own or meet as a group in the same park on Wednesdays. Those suggestions did not go very far. What about conservation work on a Wednesday I suggested. Again a response of uncertainly and lack of enthusiasm. On the spot I called up the park ranger and asked if we could meet her. She agreed to meet the group that afternoon. Over coffee and biscuits she explained how the conservation sessions worked. She also said that she knew of two people in her existing group who had ongoing experience of mental health issues. As a result of the meeting two men decided they would like to try out the conservation working party the following week. I agreed to come along to see how things went, and also to encourage them through the transition.

I was so relieved and pleased that some of the group had found an activity to do outdoors. The ranger has a very positive attitude and is good with people as well as being knowledgeable about park management. I was and still am confident the men will like the sessions.

After the participants had left I chatted to the ranger. To my surprise and delight she offered to take over the ecotherapy walks in the park herself! She reminded me that she had been on the training programme I ran for the ranger team in Barking and Dagenham five years ago. The training came about because the head of the ranger service, after attending one of my workshops, wanted to integrate ecotherapy type activities into programmes offered to the public.

We have had a meeting between myself, the ranger and the head of psychology for Barking and Dagenham. I wanted to ensure there were good pathways for people to access the ecotherapy sessions. I agreed to be available for support if the ranger needed it at any time. We hope to start the sessions in the new year.

I feel I can step back from seven years of voluntary work doing ecotherapy in Barking and Dagenham knowing that the service will continue. I am now free to explore other ways of introducing ecotherapy to others.

It is strange how sometimes you imagine the future and add in uncertainties – and then reality turns out to be quite unlike what you expected. I think it’s good to consider future consequences, as long as we let go of them while we focus on what needs to be done.