Think of a tranquil forest, a calming beach, or a serene park. We often seek healing and solace in these places, but have we ever pondered what these environments require from us? Or how various people might experience them differently due to age, disability, ethnicity, or culture? In a comprehensive article in the Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, Patric Plesa delves into an “ethical ecology” in therapeutic environments, bridging nature and mental health.
Plesa believes we’ve been missing something big: a proper ethical understanding of our relationship with nature, which he argues can make therapy more diverse and respectful of the environment.
Plesa’s research challenges the conventional, often reductive approach to therapeutic landscapes. He argues that traditional perspectives tend to neglect marginalized and minority positions, focusing instead on dominant cultural values. This leads to an incomplete understanding of what constitutes a healing environment, which can diverge significantly based on various sociocultural factors.
Grounded in what he calls “ethical ecology,” Plesa examines three crucial elements: the human/nature dichotomy, being-in-nature as an existential experience, and intersectionality. He highlights the importance of recognizing different cultures’ relationships with the natural world. He urges a shift from viewing nature as a resource to a partner that requires care and understanding.
“I want psychologists and anyone interested in therapeutic environments to consider the types of relationships humans have with nature as a theoretical grounding before implementing practical mechanisms for therapy or engagement with nature,” he writes.
“An ethical ecological approach looks at the reciprocity in the human/nature relationship and with intersectionality we can see how different people have different kinds of relationships with nature. If the aim is to use nature to heal people, nature must also be protected to avoid depleting its resources, and people must be understood as dynamic and diverse, which means that healing may look different for different people.”
In a world increasingly acknowledging the connection between mental well-being and the environment, Plesa’s work opens doors to more compassionate, inclusive, and ethically grounded ways of healing. It’s a call to rethink therapeutic spaces, emphasizing the need for an ethical ecology that accounts for diverse experiences and avoids depleting nature’s resources by prioritizing local cultural perspectives and working within marginalized communities.
The psy-disciplines’ focus on internal mental states often leaves important factors under-considered. Research on therapeutic environments, for example—or what gives a particular place its healing properties—needs to consider cultural and natural world influences in addition to psychological elements.
Considering the healing effects of different places quickly branches out into ethical issues around culture/ethnicity, racism, sexism, ableism, and more. A rigid psychological perspective will have difficulty accounting for these phenomena, likely leading to more suffering rather than less.
Plesa excavates the history of this concept:
“Healing or therapeutic environments have become a hot topic as a way to externalize some therapeutic interventions and rekindle the human relationship with nature,” Plesa writes, “the idea of using geography, nature, design, and architecture to contribute to well-being has become popular. Gesler theorized internal and external elements of therapeutic landscapes, the internal being associated with meanings and practices, and the external with social relations, values, and norms.”
“Smyth divided therapeutic landscapes into three groups: places that have a reputation for healing (e.g., geographic locations, hot springs, spiritual places); therapeutic networks that sometimes complement places/landscapes (e.g., yoga, spas, vegetarian cafes, gardens); and therapeutic moral landscapes (e.g., healthy places, reinforcement of morals around body image, gender, race, and sexuality through the use of spaces).”
The current article traces a way of thinking about therapeutic environments grounded in what the author calls “ethical ecology.” The key here is the idea that different cultures have different relationships with the natural world, influencing that culture’s healing traditions. Likewise, Dr. Plesa argues that “being in nature” is an existential experience and that sociopolitical factors also play a role in creating inclusive (or not) therapeutic environments.
Ultimately, he believes that research on therapeutic environments needs a new theoretical foundation that can provide a solid existential and ethical framework.
Conventionally, research on what makes an environment therapeutic has suffered from “theoretical vagueness” around what constitutes a healing environment. This has led some researchers and people who design these environments to neglect marginalized and minority positions in favor of dominant cultural values, as they fail to understand how what is therapeutic can change according to cultural context.
For example, “therapeutic understandings of certain spaces diverge based on age, disability, and mental health,” as well as ethnicity and culture more broadly. The Western biomedical model is often taken for granted as the default method in thinking about the healing factors of “place.”
“A study on prisons demonstrates the positive effects that gardens can have in otherwise stressful environments; however, the garden design is shown to be the key to its therapeutic effects.
Another study highlights the importance of sanctuaries away from home, work, and hospitals to feel safe and unburdened by surveillance, treatment, social demands, and emotional regulation.”
The reproduction of dominant norms here often contributes to further marginalizing indigenous and POC communities rather than the intended healing.
Plesa argues that research into therapeutic environments needs to consider existential and sociopolitical factors to counteract these negative effects.
Building from the academic disciplines of ecofeminism and relationship philosophies, the author believes that three elements, in particular, should be discussed: the human/nature dichotomy, being-in-nature as an existential experience, and intersectionality.
An instrumental view of nature, dating back several hundred years in Western thinking to the philosopher René Descartes, can impede efforts to understand human beings in relationship to the world around them. Instead, the world is viewed through the lens of resources to be used.
This impacts therapeutic environments, which are consequently understood as places to make use of rather than places to foster relationships with.
Instead, we might consider human beings fundamentally interconnected with their environments. Indigenous perspectives, for example, among others, have long understood the world through mutuality and relationship. This requires a shift in how we view the world at a foundational level, which could then influence institutional practices.
In thinking about being in nature, Plesa draws on the idea of “affordances,” or specific cases of how human beings relate to the world and how the world offers certain opportunities to us. For example, “water affords swimming and drinking.”
Considering place in this way can highlight the intimate relationships between humans and the worlds they move in, as opposed to a detached, authoritarian, and colonialist Western perspective focused only on what we can get out of a place.
An ethical ecology does not stop there, however, as political and ethical issues also need to be addressed. Plesa discusses philosopher-psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, who believed that “Blackness is not a natural property but a social relation to Whiteness.”
This points to the complex issue of how social and political issues are also relational. For Plesa, we need to think about how:
“Race, sex, gender, class, and disability, among other relations, might affect a person’s relationship to a place, experience of that space, and access to it, among other possible considerations.”
“Research on therapeutic environments requires an underlying ethical ecology that accounts for the source of the therapeutic relationship between people and environments. Without this theoretical consideration, what is therapeutic, and for whom, becomes a vague association with some idealized space.”
Plesa acknowledges one of the paper’s limitations, being a too-brief overview of complex theoretical ideas. He draws on many philosophers and social theorists but is unable, in the space of a journal article, to fully map out their perspectives.
Nevertheless, he argues that an ethical ecology framework can have practical applications, such as prioritizing local cultural perspectives and practices when appropriate, working within marginalized communities to better promote inclusivity, and “bringing funding to grassroots and community organizations” with the necessary knowledge to implement practices based on their own needs.
Much of Plesa’s thinking aligns with the growing consideration of the need to include service user perspectives in research and practice, how Western science can lead to social injustice, and the necessity of alternative theoretical frameworks that avoid psychological reductionism.