Wilderness Therapy Uses Nature to Help People Heal

Children in mountainsMany of us have stories about taking  solace in nature’s simple beauty, but few realize just how crucial a lifeline it can be.

Take the story of 24-year-old Gwen Miller of Lombard, IL, who suffered traumatic abuse as a child and has since used nature as a refuge and emotional salve. Her goal is to help other survivors of childhood abuse recover through exposure to the outdoors:

Miller’s [introduced people to nature] by leading inner-city kids on hikes and backpacking trips, as well as traveling to Washington, D.C., to lobby for legislation that encourages kids to go outside. Miller’s outdoor activism is motivated by her desire to help young people benefit from the natural world.

“When you like something, you care more about it and you want to protect it,” she said. “Without an interest and a comfort level in nature, a child might not see conservation as an important factor in life.”

More and more research and anecdotal evidence indicates that nature experiences buoy our mental and emotional well-being—just last week Melinda Koslow wrote about Beyond Tucson, a day-long nature experience intended to help the Arizonans come to terms with the 2011 shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

As it turns out, the young woman in the story above traveled to DC in late September with Sierra Club volunteers to advocate for the Healthy Kids Outdoors Act, which would give states funds to develop plans to get more children into the outdoors. As part of that week’s Great Outdoors America Week events I retold some stories from Outdoors Alliance for Kids-hosted briefing including the tale of an Iraq war veteran who said he “would be dead or in jail” without the therapy offered by the great outdoors.

Fortunately, you don’t need to climb a mountain or go into an intensive counseling program to reap nature’s emotional benefits.

“Even going on nature hikes can be really calming — simple hikes, time spent reflecting in nature, journaling in nature,” Miller said. “There’s a lot of different ways you can use nature for therapy.”

Miller wants her outdoor activism focused on children, whom she says can benefit from connecting with the outdoors even if they don’t need therapy.

To find out more about why kids should get outside, you can download NWF’s Whole Child Report or read our page on physical and mental health benefits. If you have a story of emotional healing or therapy through nature, please share it in the comments below or email me at greenbergm@nwf.org.