The WellSpan Spotlight

Mental health and wellbeing

Ecotherapy: Philhaven club harnesses nature's healing powers 

Ecotherapy: Philhaven club harnesses nature's healing powers

Some baited hooks with wriggly worms and cast their fishing lines into the calm lake at Gifford Pinchot State Park in York County. 

On a nearby trail, others stopped to examine berries on a bush, brush their fingers along a smooth rock, and listen to the burble of a small stream. 

It was a good day for Edgar, Lisa, Jose, Naomi, and other clients of the WellSpan Philhaven Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) program, a multi-disciplinary, community-based program that serves patients with severe and persistent mental health needs. Two Philhaven therapists brought a small group of ACT clients to the state park to utilize the healing power of nature through a practice called ecotherapy. 

Also known as green therapy, ecotherapy harnesses nature to boost mental and even physical well-being. Scientific studies have linked ecotherapy to reduced stress, improved mood, enhanced well-being, decreased depression and anxiety, ADHD management in children, improved symptoms of PTSD, and pain reduction.

"Depression really affects some of our clients," says Emily Lindsey, one of the therapists. "After we have been outside in a park or by a lake, they seem so much healthier. They can see the impact of nature and soaking up vitamin D." 

Just ask Lisa Newell, an ACT client who turns her face to the sun as she stands by a picnic table at Pinchot State Park. 

"The fresh air and the scenery, just being out with people – I feel more relaxed, I feel like I'm in control, I feel a little bit lighter," she says. "I am glad I came." 

Lindsey and ACT therapist Mellissa Thomas launched the group as a fishing club early this year. It has expanded to offer nature walks as well as fishing. 

Emily Lindsey (left) takes clients on a nature walk.

The group grew out of Lindsey's desire to draw out a particular client, who was reluctant to leave home and was not engaging in activities via ACT, which works to keep people out of the hospital and helps them to thrive in their communities. She heard the man liked fishing, so she bought two camper chairs and took him to a lake in York County, sitting and talking with him as he fished. 

It is just one of the many ways that Philhaven works to offer individualized treatment to its clients, finding creative and impactful ways to meet their unique needs. 

"My goal was just to build rapport and let him know we could do something like this if this was his interest," she said. "We meet clients where they are. The more difficult discussions happen when you just show up. This was my first way of showing up for him." 

The man said he would go fishing again – which excited Lindsey and made her wonder if other ACT clients also could benefit from time outdoors. 

ACT gathered a group of interested clients and got them involved in planning a club, figuring out how to get fishing licenses, how to gather necessary equipment, and other steps. About a half a dozen clients now participate once a month in the club, with the more experienced members teaching others and even their own therapists how to bait a line and hold a fishing pole. 

To appeal to others, Lindsey began leading nature walks during club outings. She asks clients to do an activity called "snapshot," where the clients stop when they see a beautiful or interesting sight, frame it like a photo in their fingers, share it with others on the walk, and give it a "caption." 

Captioning a view.

During the walk at Pinchot State Park, clients walk quietly and stop often, captioning views "The waves on the water" and "Find my way back." Along the way, they pause next to the lake as Lindsey guides them in some deep breathing. They bend and stretch to examine, touch, and describe items in their path: a rock, rough tree bark, a knobby vine. 

While the group is returning from their walk, they hear a whoop from the shoreline, where Jose Burgos and Thomas, the therapist, are fishing side by side in the lake. Jose has caught his first fish in York County, grinning as Thomas takes his photo with the fish. "You don't know how proud I am!" he tells the group when they emerge from the woods.

Jose Burgos with his fish.

Burgos shares that his grandmother died just a few days before this trip and being out in nature is a healing experience for him, getting him out of the house and engaged in an activity with others. "It is really peaceful and relaxes me," he says. 

That first client that Lindsey took fishing bloomed in the group. He started saying yes to outings and was more communicative. His mother was so happy that she bought him a fishing rod. 

"We all can benefit from being outdoors and being mindful of the beauty that surrounds us," Lindsey says. "Nature can be healing."