Climate change miniseries - episode 3

10 May 2021

In our final episode of the climate change miniseries, we interview psychotherapist Roger Duncan. Roger speaks on his fascinating research into attachment styles, the wilderness and his vital work connecting teenagers to their natural environment.

Find out more about how the College is taking action on environmental issues by viewing our new position statement on Sustainability.


Ella: Hello, and welcome to the Royal College of Psychiatrists podcast with me, Ella Marchant. You're listening to the climate change podcast mini-series which we're bringing to you alongside the College's position statement on sustainability. Our mental health is deeply connected to the health of the natural world, and we will be exploring this connection across three short podcast episodes. In episode three, we will be talking to Roger Duncan. Roger is a systemic psychotherapist, author and lecturer. Roger works in child and adolescent mental health and in private practice and has been exploring adolescent wellbeing and nature connection for 30 years. 

He believes that we are now not only facing an ecological crisis but also narrative collapse, a breakdown in how to make sense of our relationship with the natural world. His work is an invitation into a process of deep listening to find a radically re-imagined ecological approach to therapy for the task of supporting future generations of children and adolescents to become generative, altruistic and ecologically integrated adults. Roger, could you please introduce yourself and talk to us a little bit about your day-to-day routine at work? 

Roger: Hi Ella, I'm Roger Duncan. I'm a systemic family therapist working in Oxford Health and in private practice, I work in CAMHS and I'm the author of a book called Nature in Mind based on work I've been involved with for the last 30 years I'm also designing and running a diploma for Confer, a training organisation, next year called Eco Psychotherapy and the emerging adolescent mind and an online webinar, which started this week, which is an introduction to that course called Reclaiming our Indigenous Relationship with Nature. 

Ella: Could you tell us a little bit about your personal relationship with nature and how you feel it's benefited your own mental health? 

Roger: Sure. I've been involved in nature for years and years. I was a nature kid who spent a lot of time running around outside and I felt a very strong connection with nature. Later, as I trained as a psychotherapist, I realised some of the reasons why I did that. I've always had this strong connection with wild places. I spent a lot of time visiting wild places, walking wild places when I was younger. More recently in lockdown I've developed a practice of walking on a daily basis, on a particular walk, and that's really deepened the here and now connection with nature for me and it's very grounding for me. My connection with nature is very strong. Also I have a nice garden. I spend a lot of time growing things in my poly tunnel, which I find really nourishing. 

Ella: I think growing things can be very therapeutic. I'd like to talk to you a bit about the role of the environment in helping with attachment styles and trauma. 

Roger: When we think of attachment as a mental health work worker, we think of attachment with our parents and how we learn those attachment styles and how that influences, for better or worse, all our social relationships. I suppose from an ecopsychology perspective, from an indigenous perspective, indigenous people saw nature differently. They saw nature as interactive and they were in a relationship with nature. In that way, their attachment styles were much more sophisticated. They had a much bigger relationship with nature and they had a much more interactive relationship, not only with people but also animals, plants, and the whole world. That's something we've really lost in the west. 

It's something I've done a lot of research in, for my book particularly. I suppose one of the things that influences me is work by an organisation called Reclaiming Youth at Risk and a book that they've written called Reclaiming Youth at Risk, which uses an indigenous developmental tool to understand attachment. Basically, in the west we tend to think of attachment to our parents, to our family. Whereas Reclaiming Youth at Risk uses this model called the circle of courage, which includes our family, but also includes our extended family, tribal identity, and also land and connection with nature as part of an attachment cycle really, attachment container. We've lost that in the west, I think. 

That thinking is in my mind when I'm thinking about developing ecopsychotherapy practice and thinking about patients from an ecopsychotherapy point of view. 

Ella: How do you feel like nature interacts with, I don't know if I should say attachment styles or attachment needs, but how do you feel like nature interacts with those? 

Roger: Well, I think from an indigenous perspective, which is where I'm coming from, I suppose, because I think we are all indigenous people, even though we may have lost that through many generations, we are part of nature, we are connected to nature, we're just living through a period in history where we've forgotten that. Actually that has quite serious consequences for the environment, but also for our mental health. 

Ella: Do you believe that anxious attachment or fearful attachment or avoidant attachment could be potentially resolved through interacting with the environment, interacting with wilderness? 

Roger: I think it gives a deeper sense of connection. I think if you read the literature on this, connection with nature can actually heal attachment. One of the programs I've studied is wilderness programs in the United States with an organisation called Open Sky Network. They have specifically researched attachment and wilderness, and how wilderness experience can help complex attachment difficulties. 

Ella: That's fascinating, thank you. Could you tell us about mental health services that are adopting these types of sustainable eco practices? What could other mental health services and trusts learn from these examples? 

Roger: Well, I think there's ongoing work at the moment with a lot of the wildlife trusts that are trying to link up with mental health services to provide outdoor spaces for people with mental health issues. Often this is with adults, but I think one of the projects I’m in the process of developing 0 it got delayed through COVID - is for an inpatients unit, developing connections between inpatients, adolescent inpatient unit and wildlife trusts. That's just really a pilot project we're starting. Also, on my course this week I had Sue Stuart Smith, who's a psychiatrist who talks about gardening, the benefits of gardening. 

She has researched a lot of projects around different places where they're connecting mental health patients or people who are disconnected youth at risk with gardening projects. That has a massively positive effect in America and also in the UK. Historically, this was also used for trauma. Again, Sue Stuart Smith talks about how after the Second World War there were a lot of projects, horticultural projects, which were used for healing PTSD. 

Ella: What would you recommend for other trusts to learn from these organisations that are using these kind of practices? 

Roger: Well, I think it's really worth exploring this connection with nature and rethinking really what mental health is all about. There's a strong component, I think, in mental health in disconnection. What you see with developmental trauma is often a disconnection within the family and a dissociation. Actually, I think that can be healed by connection to nature and a wider community, wider systems really. I suppose it's having a more of a systems way of thinking about nature, rather than thinking about mental health as a medical model from a medical issue. 

Ella: Thinking about it more alternatively. 

Roger: More in terms of why we're suffering from these mental health issues now. I think what lockdown has done is it has brought to focus the fact that actually people really need to connect with the outdoors. 

Ella: Definitely. I think there's a lot of people who don't even get out every day, they sit at their desk for eight hours without any time outside. Even in a place like London, there's always parks to go to. I don't think people prioritise it, and I'm not really sure why. 

Roger: I think maybe because that's not something that's promoted particularly. It's not something people think about the particularly well. As I said, we're living through a period of history where we don't connect with nature very well. I think previously that connection has been much better understood. Of course, with indigenous cultures that was absolutely part of their core culture. We've moved away from that at our peril, I think. 

Ella: I agree. Could you talk to us about the woodland management project that you did with young people? 

Roger: Yes. This is work I was involved with before I joined the NHS, before I trained as a systemic family therapist in fact. I worked for ten years in an independent specialist college, and we had a variety of adolescents who were showing pretty complex behaviour, attachment issues, learning difficulties, youth at risk and I was part of developing a woodland management project. I had a twenty-five-acre woodland that was part of our project. We brought young people into that and embedded them, as it were, in traditional woodland management practice. Coppicing, felling, charcoal making, tree planting. That was part of an educational program. 

Over a period of time, I saw a huge change in those young people through their exposure to nature, through physical activity, but also through their involvement in the team being part of a community, being part of a team of people that were actually working on the land and thinking about the land and caring for the land. 

Ella: What changes did you see with these young people as you worked with them? 

Roger: Well, I think this is in line with the research that they've done at the Open Sky program in America, the one I talked about. People just improve their mental health and improve their anxiety and became more engaged in society and were able to move into formal education. I' remember there was a young lad I worked with in the coppice and the first year he didn't engage at all. The second year he came out and started playing around in the woods. The third year, because it was a long program, the third year he engaged in the woodlands activity and then went on to study arboriculture. That was someone who was completely excluded, as it were, from education, being able to re-engage through physical activity in nature. 

Ella: Thank you so much. What treatments are sustainable eco treatments replacing? Why is this good for our environment? 

Roger: Again, thinking about the environment and climate change, I think it really helps to think about this as a systemic issue rather than a medical issue. What I mean by a medical issue is that there's one issue and that we can solve it. Climate change is a problem we can fix it if we reduce carbon. I think what we're looking at is a much more systemic problem with the burning of the forests, the building, the plastics, the sea, the mental health, the social breakdown. If you study what's going on globally, you realise there's a much bigger picture than just building up carbon in the atmosphere, and we have to look at why this is happening. 

We have to look back, get a long view of history, and an ecopsychology view of history. Thinking that actually, as human beings, we've been indigenous hunter-gatherers for a very long time, or we've been connected with nature at a very deep level for a very long time. It's only very recently that started to unravel with industrialisation. Obviously we can't go back to being hunter-gatherers, but we have to rethink our connection with nature and our mental health and try to find ways that actually we can reconnect people with nature and their understanding of nature, their view of nature and how this improves our mental health and how it improves sustainable practice really in our society. 

Ella: Finally, what kind of changes, just building a little bit on what we were talking about before, what kind of changes have you seen happen firsthand when patients and service users interact with their environment? 

Roger: I've seen people get radically better. As I said, talking about that case of a young person who was excluded, his behavior, his anxiety. Also I've worked with young people who have severe autistic tendencies who've actually been able to re-engage with society through connecting with nature rather than connecting with people. I think when with attachment difficulties, it's quite often difficult to connect with people socially, and yet we can get a relational connection with nature, with plants and animals, and build up that those kinds of relational skills in a way which is safer. Then those can be later transferred to a human setting. 

I think nature has a fantastic role to play, a vital role to play. There's a lot of interest in ecopsychology and nature-based practice developing now. We're working uphill, I suppose, against an idea that nature is somehow out there, that we have to preserve, rather than we are nature and nature needs to be in every part of our lives. I suppose the key thing is about indigenous models of nature of mental health, indigenous development models. For me, that's quite important. I suppose the thing I struggle with within the NHS, I suppose, is that nature is seen very much as something outside. 

Where I work in the hospital, there's a guy that comes and mows all the lawns and cuts the trees down, puts a few plants in and that's the grounds. All the mental health stuff goes on inside. Actually there's all this land that could be used for gardening or growing vegetables or having a therapeutic garden but it's not used because the thinking's not really there. 

Ella: Thank you to Roger Duncan for lending his expertise to the climate change podcast miniseries. If you'd like to read our full position statement on sustainability, please go to our website.


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