Time to Legitimise Outdoor Therapy as a Prescribed Treatment

By Doug Williams
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Time to Legitimise Outdoor Therapy as a Prescribed Treatment

Doug Williams
 
 
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Many veterans have had recourse to natural therapies to cope with psychological disorders. Stacey Bare, who had served in Iraq in 2006, returned home struggling with alcoholism, a cocaine addiction, suicidal impulses and other problems.

In 2010 another veteran took him to Boulder, Colorado for a rock climbing session. Bare has said that rock climbing has given him ‘the focus….to leave my troubles on the ground.’ He credits the activity as a life changer.

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Bare’s appraisal of outdoor therapy is shared by many. Outward Bound and other groups have been taking veterans on outdoor activities for years. A simple walk in the woods can have powerful psychological benefits.

 

The idea came to Bare that if there were enough scientific evidence to support the benefits doctors would prescribe outdoor recreation as an alternative to long and expensive therapy sessions and drugs.

He became director of Sierra Club Outdoors to further this aim and to help returned servicemen and servicewomen.

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He also founded the Great Outdoor Lab in 2013, in partnership with Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner and the University of California. The Lab is a think tank which studies the health benefits of outdoor activity.

Keltner began his three years of field studies in rafting with the Sierra Club in 2014. The studies are conducted with strict scientific rigor, to the same standards expected of pharmaceutical tests.

Keltner believes his studies are justified. ‘We have pharmaceutical solutions for health problems that can be solved by the great outdoors,’ he says. Bare describes a client who saved the Department of Veterans Affairs $20,000 simply by taking up kayaking.

 

Other researchers soon joined Bare and Keltner. Dr. Nooshin Razani from the University of California, the Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland (San Francisco) and Kaiser Permanente are some of these collaborators.

‘If we could package the outdoors and call it a pharmaceutical, it would be sold widely,’ says Tyler Norris, of Kaiser Permanente. He believes the science is encouraging, but further study is still needed.

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There are critics, however. Stephen Lockhart, Chief Medical Officer of Sutter Health, suggests that while outdoor therapies may not be accepted by insurance companies, they might nevertheless encourage rebates on premiums, in the same manner in which non-smoking can reduce premiums.

Bare insists outdoor therapy will go beyond this. ‘No one questions using sick time to go to the therapist,’ she says. ‘If you end up healthier and more productive by taking a powder day, it just makes sense. Xanax isn’t seen as an extravagance, and time outdoors shouldn’t be either.’

 

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