Is there a link between environment and mental health?

OSU-Cascades instructor integrates nature in counseling

By Tyler Leeds / The Bulletin


Published May 12, 2014 at 12:01AM / Updated May 12, 2014 at 06:25AM

Ryan Reese has set out to study and utilize a phenomenon many Central Oregonians take advantage of every day — the therapeutic benefits derived from simply being in nature.

Reese, an instructor of counseling at Oregon State University-Cascades Campus, is building on work from his doctoral thesis to develop a way to integrate nature into his counseling work. He currently uses his approach in private practice, but will offer a course this summer — open to students and non-students — meant to introduce the theory behind his thinking and ways to apply it.

On Friday, Reese was able to put his skills to work at Shevlin Park with local students enrolled in the STRIVE program, which Sal Cassaro, Bend-La Pine Schools’ director of secondary programs, said targets the district’s “most at-risk” middle- and high school students.

“My belief is that there is an inherent, biological connection humans have to nature,” Reese said. “A lot of research has shown that simply being in (natural) spaces can have positive effects, in part by calming physiological processes.”

Reese said his interest developed from observing the growth and healing he experienced as a fly-fishing guide in Alaska. While fly-fishing worked for him, Reese said nature is “self-defined,” and that healing could arise from anything ranging from spending time with a pet to listening to nature sounds.

In his work with STRIVE, Reese aims to create in the students a relationship with nature that may not have existed before.

“A lot of these students may lack the positive connections to adults that can be so important,” Reese said. “My goal is to have them foster a relationship with nature, something that can be a positive and reliable presence.”

On Friday, Reese had students create masks from found materials in Shevlin Park. One mask was made to represent their true selves, while the other was meant to represent something they feel others expect from them.

“Adolescents are trying to figure out who they are, and I think this activity works on that,” Reese said. “There’s something really real and raw about nature. It’s the epitome of authenticity, and I think students can even be influenced just by being around it.”

Cassaro noted that some of the students are victims of abuse and are the district’s most persistent truants, and “having them connect with nature is an important, new benefit we can offer.”

In his research, Reese found that having simple access to nature can be powerful, but that nature also offers a means to explore one’s own identity.

As an example, Reese spoke of a 10-year-old he worked with who identified with an unhealthy tree while on a hike in the forest.

“He just walked over and said he felt like he was dying on the inside,” Reese said. “For someone so young as this 10-year-old to say that was pretty wild, and the conversation soon led to more specifics about what he was feeling.”

In his private practice, Reese first meets with patients in a traditional setting. If they approve, Reese will then take his clients on walks throughout Central Oregon. Some of his methods include discussing times when the client felt scared in nature or identifying with something they encounter on the hike.

Reese’s method is centered around seven aspects: physical access, sensory access, connection, protection, preservation, spirituality and community connectedness. Each of these areas contribute to what Reese termed “Eco­Wellness,” which refers to the sense of wellness individuals experience through engaging in nature.

“There may be someone with plenty of physical or sensory access, but who wants to deepen their connection,” Reese said. “One thing to do is enhance their sense of environmental agency, perhaps by selecting an environmental cause they support and working to help it. I’m able to determine with my client how to better bring the environment into my client’s life, using the seven areas.”

In his course this summer, titled “Foundations of Eco­Wellness,” Reese will explore the seven aspects.

“We’ll look at practical ways to bring it into different settings,” Reese said. “It will be pretty experiential, and the goal is to have students create and work on something they can use.”

— Reporter: 541-633-2160, tleeds@bendbulletin.com