Space to grow: wilderness therapy could help abuse survivors

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Sarah M Lee/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Sarah M Lee/The Guardian

Wilderness therapy and access to green space may help domestic abuse survivors heal while improving therapy outcomes, a study has found.

Scientists from the University of Essex worked with the Wilderness Foundation, a charity that offers outdoor therapy programmes, to see if treatment in the natural world could work better, or alongside, traditional methods.

In its Blossom programme, which helps survivors of domestic violence, patients take part in outdoor group therapy as well as learning outdoor survival skills such as making shelter and fire and making arts and crafts from foraged materials.

The foundation, which works with more than 7,000 people each year, is displaying a garden at Chelsea flower show, which shows some of the plants and methods used by those in its various programmes. This year, the charity is applying for funding from the Ministry of Justice, which has ringfenced £16m for support services for domestic abuse survivors.

Findings from the University of Essex pilot study, which included 12 women and eight adolescents, showed that self-esteem increased 15% in programme participants by the end of the study, and wellbeing by 52%, and there was a 30% increase in average resilience scores. More research with bigger groups will soon be under way, but scientists believe that this result is promising.

Related: Green spaces are not accessible for 2.8m people in UK, finds study

Kirsty Shanks, who led the research, said: “What people spoke about was a sense of belonging, a sense of community that they’d got from the project.”

She added that though the project was multifaceted and included therapy groups, activities and community building, the main positive people got from it was the access to nature.

Shanks added: “What underpinned it all was actually being outdoors, being in nature, the impact that that had on people. That was something that everybody spoke about.”

Much of the work is about rebuilding self-esteem after abuse, and the study participants said being in nature helped them to recover.

A recent literature review by Natural England in conjunction with the charity Mind has found that nature therapy can help mental health. “Throughout this published evidence base, there is therefore consensus that nature contributes to enhanced wellbeing, mental development and personal fulfilment,” the authors concluded.

The medical profession is slowly adopting nature therapy, with some GPs now prescribing gardening and other outdoor activities to people with mild mental health issues.

Jo Roberts, the CEO of the Wilderness Foundation, said: “A lot of our work is around rebuilding the self, because domestic abuse erodes people, it takes away confidence and a sense of self, someone else’s, almost kind of sucking your life force out of you.

“There is huge amount of science in the background, whether it’s to do with neuroscience of nature, how fractal patterns of trees is changing how we think using things like attention, and restoration therapy. Cortisol levels reduce when you are out in nature.”

Man stands in garden
Charlie Hawkes in the Wilderness Foundation garden at Chelsea he designed. Photograph: Sarah M Lee/The Guardian

A survivor, who did not want to be named, told the Guardian about her experience with the programme.

“First, you might sit there and think this is a bit hippy,” she said. “But actually, it wakes you up, it makes you realise actually you are still alive and that you are someone.

“In the last sort of therapy I had, in a little room, it made me feel like I was getting more and more boxed in. But you can come here and talk about how you feel, and it disperses into the air. And it doesn’t leave it with you. When you’re in a little room, it makes you feel like you’ve got to go home and wash all of the sadness off you.”

The women in the group managed to become closer through their activities in nature. “When you’re connected to the wilderness, it makes you feel like you are part of something because, I don’t know if all women of domestic abuse feel the same, but you feel so on your own, even if you’re surrounded by other people.

“It’s been so helpful to make me feel like an actual somebody rather than an entity that just floats around, stays away from everything and everyone. It saves my life nearly every day.”

Many survivors find it hard to access therapy and help, because of funding cuts by successive Conservative governments. Those involved in the study stressed that it was helpful because it was long-term, and the scientists have recommended more funding for such therapies.

Roberts said: “When you’re in nature, you’re much more slowed down. We might have to scurry if suddenly the heavens open on us and we’ve got to get to a shelter but basically nothing is rushed. So you’re almost slowing your heart rate down.” She also pointed to research showing that activities such as forest bathing can reduce levels of cortisol, the hormone associated with stress.

It is important to have wilderness facilities at therapy centres, because many don’t have access to nature at home, she said. “The work of the foundation is about fighting our corners to make sure that we maintain green space for people.”

The benefits of green spaces need to be for everyone, she argued. “We really want to make sure that our programmes are accessible to people who don’t have access to their own large landscape or their own big gardens. We want to make sure that we’ve got spaces for people, any person, to access nature in some way.”

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