The theme for this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week is “nature”. Over the past year with in-person gatherings limited, many people have taken walks in nature. People have found this has really helped when they have felt stressed, depressed or anxious. Outdoors has been a space where people can socialise more safely. We have also become more connected to natural cycles; when we can only meet outside, we start to become more aware of the weather and the light changing throughout the year.  This can be helpful for living in the present and being more mindful.

For some people with learning difficulties and/or autism, meeting outdoors for support has been one of the only ways we have been able to connect with other people. For others, spending time in their gardens or in local green spaces has helped with symptoms of depression and anxiety.  Our weekly Wellbeing Group spent a week in summer 2020 sharing what helped them to relax and look after their mental health during lockdown.  Amy shared a presentation with the group, describing how spending time in the garden helps her to feel relaxed and happy.  She spoke about the smells and sounds of different gardens and how she finds looking for pictures in the clouds a good way of being mindful.  Eco Shed members spent time at home wildlife spotting, gardening and making wildlife homes.

“Sometimes, things have to come to a crisis point or “fall apart” for positive change to happen.  I often think of this like a tree falling down in a storm. When it falls and dies, it creates a home for hundreds of insects and mushrooms.  It fertilises the soil for new trees and plants to grow and lets in more light for the younger trees in the forest.  The Coronavirus pandemic created a crisis that meant funding became available in June 2020 to set up counselling in bemix. This has benefitted lots of people and given us the opportunity to grow in a new way”  - Louise, Head of Wellbeing

Outdoor Counselling; Inclusion and Accessibility

When we set up the counselling in bemix, we already knew that accessibility was one of the big barriers for people with learning difficulties and/or autism. We were keen to work around this by providing as much flexibility and opportunity for adjusting counselling sessions as possible.  Many of us rely on public transport within the hours we can use our bus pass. Many of us find going to a new place challenging - there are new routes to remember and new rules and expectations to learn, let alone meeting a new person we are going to share our deepest thoughts and feelings with. Having spent a few months getting used to working together online, many of us were already getting comfortable with remote working and this has been a wonderfully inclusive option for counselling sessions.

But what about those of us who find communicating by telephone or video call challenging?  What about those of us who do not have access to the internet or do not own the devices to have a phone or video call? And what about those of us who do not have a private or safe space at home to speak for a counselling session?  We were facing high levels of isolation and also needed to be able to access the counselling.

We wanted to find a way to meet in person and still reduce the risk of transmitting Covid-19. We already knew about the benefits of getting outdoors in nature, and decided to develop some training to enable us to ethically and safely offer outdoor and/or walking counselling as an option for people with learning difficulties and/or autism.  

“Outdoor therapy, for me, is about more than the wonderful mental health benefits of being around trees and fresh air. So many people with learning difficulties and/or autism are still segregated from mainstream society. bemix’s mission is to ensure that people can be seen, be heard and belong in all areas of society and the focus is on projects that integrate and engage with the community in a reciprocal way.  When we take therapy outside, we have the opportunity to explore and understand that social and environmental experience together.  It is about inclusion.” - Louise, Head of Wellbeing, bemix

(Images used are representations only and not of counselling sessions)

Co-producing Outdoor Counselling training

In March 2021, Nick Langley, a counsellor and counselling tutor specialising in outdoor and walking therapy delivered training to our team of trainee counsellors in bemix.  Nick brought knowledge and expertise on the therapeutic benefits of working with nature in outdoor counselling.

Because we are a part of the natural world, nature cannot in my opinion, be separated from the counselling process.  The human experience is a natural one, despite sometimes having experiences that we might refer to as unnatural. I see nature’s “role” in counselling as an opportunity to develop our sense of connectedness to all life, to examine our own position in relation to others, and to address some fundamental existential givens.” - Nick Langley, Counsellor

We wanted to make sure that the training would give the counsellors and trainees an opportunity to think about what counselling outdoors might be like for people with learning difficulties and/or autism. A group of people with and without learning difficulties and/or autism in bemix got together on Zoom to share their experiences, ask questions and make suggestions related to outdoor and walking counsellor (read more on our approach and co-production). We filmed the discussion and used it to form part of the training workshop for counsellors.

 “I really liked getting information about it. It is really important to work co-productively in these projects. Now that I know people have listened to me, I want to try it.” - Will, bemix

I felt a bit uncomfortable talking about it but it was good to have the chance to have experiences taken seriously. I want the counselling sessions to go well and that our being part of the training will encourage other professionals to listen to our needs” - Sam, bemix

There are so many things that are important to us and we had a chance to help people to see that. This will really put us at the centre of our own counselling.” - Simon, bemix

We considered the potential risks and how we could minimise them. We explored concerns over disability hate crime in busy towns, of needing time to learn and remember a route and know what to do in an unpredictable situation. We thought about how many people have been institutionalised; supported and protected by others, and how we can make outdoor therapy a safe and liberating place to explore responsibility and choice ('Health and Safety' is one of bemix 'Wider Values' - we work in a way that protects people’s independence and choice, and encourages shared responsibility for health and safety). We talked about physical comfort and access to green spaces and toilets. We identified the concerns people with learning difficulties and/or autism have in common, and the differences we would expect as everyone is an individual.  We learnt what we needed to consider when planning to take counselling outside, and the questions people might find helpful.

You can learn more about our approach to wellbeing and counselling at bemix, by following the links below:

Wellbeing and counselling at bemix

bemix wellbeing news