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Where Eco-Social Work and Indigenous World Views Intersect

Eco-social work is an area of practice that is still trying to find its identity. I have only very recently ‘come out’ as an eco‑social worker and recognise there are many different approaches to incorporating eco‑therapies into practice.

My eco-social work practice has been largely influenced by my Indigenous mentors and co-workers in the Northern Territory. Spending time on country with Tiwi Elders gave me insight into their culture, spiritual connection to the land and harmonious lifestyles. For those experiencing intergenerational trauma, mental health, drug and alcohol and domestic violence issues, the women often told me “going bush is the best medicine for our people”. Essentially what the Elders were telling me is that land and connection to country is critical for social and emotional wellbeing, and must be part of a therapeutic plan for recovery. This is consistent with a 2009 Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATIS) paper, which says:

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health is viewed in a holistic context, that encompasses mental health and physical, cultural and spiritual health. Land is central to wellbeing. Crucially, it must be understood that when the harmony of these interrelations is disrupted, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ill health will persist.

Lucy with Tiwi Elders, Alberta and Elaine

Part of my therapeutic work involved taking families out on camping trips away from the stresses of their community. The strong women always took a lead in traditional healing ceremonies for their children and families on these camps.

Eco-social work practice requires us to expand our thinking beyond the ‘person-in-environment’ perspective to consider the earth as an ecological whole in which humans have always belonged. Eco-psychologists might argue that people and the planet are so inextricably linked that when one becomes unwell so does the other, likewise when one is healthy so is the other. According to the biophilia hypothesis, people have an innate affiliation with nature and if we separate from nature we will suffer psychologically.

This need for nature goes beyond exploiting natural resources for human gain, but is vital for human emotional, spiritual, aesthetic and cognitive growth and development. It could be that our evolution away from forests into the busy, stressful conditions of modern civilisation is contributing to the rapidly rising rates of mental health issues we are seeing globally. Richard Louv, who uses the term ‘nature deficit disorder’ to describe the impact of our separation, says children are spending so much less time outdoors than previous generations, that it is having a detrimental impact on their development. Rather than seeing ourselves as separate from nature, we must remember, we are nature.

To assist in the process of getting people to reconnect with nature for health and wellbeing, I did training in an eco-therapy called Nature and Forest Therapy (NFT). NFT is inspired by the traditional Japanese practice of shinrin yoku (forest bathing). The objective of a nature therapy walk is to give participants an opportunity to take a break from the stresses of daily life, to slow down and appreciate things that can only be noticed when moving slowly.

The key is not to cover a lot of miles, but to walk through nature with intention and just ‘be’. This mindful approach to nature connection can be likened to the Indigenous contemplative practice of Dadirri, traditionally practised while sitting on country. Miriam Rose Ungunmerr says ‘Dadirri is inner, deep listening and quiet, still awareness. Dadirri recognises the deep spring that is inside us’.

Nature and Forest Therapy Walk, Nambucca Heads, NSW

On a guided group Nature Therapy walk, particular attention is paid to the practice of reciprocity. In supporting the development of human-nature relationships we foster the role of humans as givers, as well as receivers. I firmly believe that if we are more closely connected to Mother Nature, we are more likely to want to care for and protect her. People who engage regularly in forest bathing practices tend to spontaneously want to give back to nature or introduce lifestyle changes to tread more lightly on the earth. This is consistent with the Indigenous worldview that recognises the interconnectedness of all things.

In a counselling context, eco-social work can be as simple as conducting sessions outdoors or doing a ‘walk and talk’ session in nature. The relaxation effects of being in nature are immediate for our clients, regardless of what happens in the therapeutic conversation. If it is not possible to meet outside, nature can be brought indoors to enhance the healing effects. Introducing pot plants, nature landscape artwork and natural forest scents to your office all have health and wellbeing benefits.

Eco-therapists are implementing nature-based enquiries into their assessment processes using instruments such as the Sensory Awareness Inventory. Investigations into the sensory activities that give people pleasure often feature nature-based themes and provide insight into ways clients can move towards their therapeutic goals. Interventions such as sensate focusing allow clients to draw on the full range of sensory experiences to help them achieve a life of comfort, safety and joy. Using nature as a teaching or learning tool, nature-based assignments can be client or therapist-directed to help them draw on available resources and move towards change.

I believe eco-therapies will be the evidence-based focused psychological strategies of the future, as we begin to understand the interconnectedness between people and a planet under stress. Even putting aside for a moment what Indigenous people have demonstrated through their relationship with the land for thousands of years, there is evidence showing the benefits of nature and green space, to mental, physical, emotional, cultural, and spiritual health.

In bringing eco-therapy into my social work practice, I aspire to connect people back to their true nature, promote wellness and recovery from physical and mental ill health, and bring healing to those who have experienced trauma. By strengthening the human-nature connection, I am also indebted to the traditional, ancient wisdom of Indigenous cultures about the healing power of nature and our obligations to care for our planet.

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What does it mean to be a climate-conscious practitioner?

In the same way that I developed a passion for Indigenous social work and working with the most marginalised, I have also made the commitment to become a climate-conscious social worker.  But what does that mean exactly?  Well, here goes.

For me, it means acknowledging the climate emergency, that it is a human made problem and that there is a real urgency to address it.  It means knowing just enough about the climate science to be informed, but limiting my intake of climate news so that it does not lead me down a black hole of despair.  It means filling my awareness with good news environmental stories too, of which there are plenty.

It means recognising both the experience-near and distance effects of climate change, and that it impacts all of us.  One does not need to have lost their home, possessions or loved ones through a flood or fire to be feeling deeply the effects.

It means I acknowledge that uncertainty over the future of the planet is a contributing factor to the rapidly rising rates of anxiety, depression and other mental health issues.  I recognise the need to move away from individual therapy to more collaborative models that bring people together in community.  I believe linking the lives of people through sharing stories and experiences reduces isolation, builds resilience and fosters hope. 

It means being aware that the climate-concerns clients raise with me and the emotions they are experiencing are real, and deeply felt by me too.  It means I listen actively and respectfully to their pain for the world, making space for people to explore their despair, fear, anxiety, anger, sadness and other feelings.  And allowing myself to sit with the discomfort too.

It means I do not label people with a disorder.  Eco-anxiety is not something to be cured or fixed.  Climate distress is a very healthy emotional response, as a sign of sensitivity, empathy and love for our beautiful planet.  It speaks to the values and beliefs that are important to people. 

It means acknowledging the role that Indigenous peoples played in caring for the environment before colonisation and industrialisation (and continue to do so).  It is awareness of the links between climate change and global inequality and recognising that institutional racism, injustice and economic inequality are root causes.  It is those that have been exploited and contributed the least to the problem that are now suffering the most.

It means bringing people back into relationship with the more-than-human world.  It is the loss of our connection with nature that has got us into this mess.  And so my belief is that one step towards climate healing is coming back to nature.  When we have re-established our relationship with Mother Nature, then we are more like to care for her, look out for her, respect her.

It means helping people to find ‘active hope’, that is, moving beyond paralysing feelings of helplessness to taking action.  It is only after exploring and accepting our feelings, that we can take action in a conscious and grounded way.  Whether you decide to fly less and holiday near home or become an environmentalist, it is all valued.   

It means holding my counselling sessions and groupwork in the outdoors wherever possible.  There is a wealth of scientific knowledge that nature is good for our health and wellbeing and so holding my consultations outdoors is already working magic on people before they open their mouth to speak.

It means that I actively maintain my own healthy relationship with the more-than-human world.  I walk the talk.  I do everything that I invite my clients to do.  Spending time sitting in quiet contemplation, practicing mindfulness, finding ways of tending to nature like picking up rubbish or joining Landcare.

It means I live as lightly as possible on the earth.  It is accepting the reality that I am contributing to the release of green houses gases every time I leave the house but not letting guilt or shame talk me into becoming immobilised.  It is about taking any small actions I can, because it does make a difference.

It means that I actively support causes which are addressing climate change.  I attend Climate Change marches and events where possible.  I donate $1 from each counselling session I provide to ReForest Now, a non-profit planting trees and regenerating rainforest in NSW. 

It means I am committed to ongoing professional development in the area of climate aware practice.  I am a full member of Psychology For a Safe Climate and working towards becoming a Climate Aware Practitioner.

If it is a climate-conscious mental health practitioner you are looking for, then let’s chat.

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Giving Back to Nature

Giving Back to Nature

There are lots of ways humans communicate their distress and need for help without actually using words, which can be too hard.  You might notice their mood changes and they retreat into their bedroom, they turn to drugs and alcohol to numb their feelings, start to harm or say they’re going to kill themselves.  The person is not a problem to be fixed here.  It’s a sign that there is something drastically wrong with their environment that does not allow them to thrive.   Rather than attention-seeking behaviours, I see these as cries for help to fix their environment!   In short, eradicating things like homelessness, homophobia, racism, discrimination, poverty, injustice, inequality and environmental degradation would go a long way to fixing people’s mental health issues.

Consider that the Earth also finds it difficult to speak up.  She has been trying to seek our attention for many decades now to indicate her distress.  She has been giving us warning signs that are growing much more alarming.   You know them.  The melting polar caps, the loss of biodiversity due to deforestation, escalating animal extinction rates, more frequent natural disasters and arguably now a pandemic.  The Planet is not attention-seeking here!  She is crying out for help.  We need to fix her environment, those precious spaces and places we share with her.  By doing so, our health and mental health will also benefit.

The reality of climate changes’ devastating effects was most prominent for me in the Black Summer fires of 2019-20.  Bushfires were bearing down on us in our makeshift home at the time on the outskirts of Bowraville.  The impact was devastating and people hardly had time to recover before the pandemic hit.  Some are still living without proper housing. 

After this close call, I felt a real urge to take action and I’ve been doing as much as I can to live more lightly on the earth like establishing a worm farm, buying more bulk organic goods and less plastic, and ensuring I recycled or reused everything I possibly could!  In my most despairing of moments I often feel powerless, thinking what difference can one person really make.  In my most hopeful moments, I can see that larger movements of people really can do good, the work of Greta Thunberg being an obvious example.  So I’ve decided that this year, it’s time for more broader action.

It’s time to plant trees.  Lots of them.  Using the tools that Nature has provided us already, this is one way we can take action now to draw down excess carbon from the atmosphere.  My commitment this year is to donate $1 from each counselling session to ReForest Now.

ReForest Now volunteers planting in the Upper Mongogorie, NSW.
Photo credit – Reforest Now

“ReForest Now works to restore what was once Australia’s largest expanse of subtropical rainforest, home to an incredible array of species that grew from the rich volcanic soils of Wollumbin. The Big Scrub once covered 75,000 hectares of Northern NSW (an area larger than Singapore!)  By 1900, more than 99% of this unique ecosystem had been cleared. The remaining forest occurs in small, scattered patches called “remnants”. These remnants contain 122 endangered/critically endangered species, with many more threatened.” You can read more about their inspiring work here.  And if you feel inspired to support them in any way, whether through donations or getting out there and putting plant into soil, I encourage you to do so.

We are all part of the Climate Change problem.  Think about what part you can play in being part of the solution.  We have taken so much.  It’s time to give back to nature.

Reforest Now volunteers maintain plantations. Photo credit – Reforest Now.
stories matter

Facing the Climate Crisis: What’s Your Story?

As many of you know, I am all about story.

At the heart of narrative therapy is listening to the problem stories of people’s lives.

Right now, I am hearing stories of young people being crippled by eco-anxiety, feeling despair at the future that unfolds for themselves and future generations.  I am hearing stories of despair and sadness at the unfolding crisis on our planet and frustration through lack of climate action by our leaders.  I am hearing stories of the sense of powerless people feel over the melting ice-caps, the loss of biodiversity and the extinction of species. 

According to Joanna Macy, we are now seeing and understanding what is happening in the world through the lens of three main stories or versions of reality.  The Business As Usual story is the one that has people living the way they always have, with economic growth and getting ahead as its goal.  The story of the Great Unraveling acknowledges the disastrous consequences of living by the Business as Usual story, through the collapse of biological, ecological, economic and social systems.  The Great Turning is the story being created by those who recognise the Great Unravelling and are rising to create a different future for our planet.  Joanne argues that there is truth in all these stories.  They are all happening right now.  And we can choose where we put our attention.

While the ‘doom and gloom’ problem story is getting lots of airplay, as a narrative therapist, I am also interested in shining the light on the alternative story.  For it is in feeling despair and sorrow for the planet, that we can speak about our preferences for living. It is in losing hope that we can speak to the kind of future that we wish for.  It is in feeling the pain that we can speak about the values that are so precious to us. 

In 2020, my goal is to uncover the alternative stories of people’s lives around the climate crisis, unearthing the ways they are surviving and thriving, living out their true values and taking action.  The intention in collecting and publishing these stories is to give richer attention to the Great Unravelling that is happening across our communities.  Perhaps these stories will bring back hope to someone who has lost theirs and cannot pull themselves up out of the pit of depression or anxiety.

I am looking for people just like you to share your story.  I would love to speak with you about your relationship with the planet, how you are standing strong in the face of uncertain times and explore opportunities for developing superpowers for future actions. 

Just to be clear, you do not have to have a big story, you may not feel you are changing the world or even coping all that well with the climate crisis.  I envisage that my reflective interview questions will be a therapeutic and healing process for you, as we give voice to the downs and unearth the ups together.

If you are interested in participating, please get in touch and I will send you some questions inviting your written response, to become part of a narrative collective document on Facing the Climate Crisis Together.