After getting off of the train in Avignon and feeling the sun hit my un-sunscreened shoulders, my mood undeniably approved. It was a definite upgrade from the cold and drizzly weather we had just escaped from in Paris. Whether it was the sunshine induced drowsiness or the gelato produced lethargy, I seemed to move at a much slower and relaxed pace this weekend. I often find myself hustling to get from departure point to destination during the week, sighing impatiently at the slow walkers leisurely strolling on the sidewalk who have the audacity to slow me down. In Provence, I didn’t feel the need to obsessively make schedules and instead just enjoyed the new surroundings.
The southern France, creek wading Irena is definitely much more carefree and relaxed than urban Paris, coffee chugging Irena.
I thought back to our journal topics about Van Gogh and his mental health and remembered how the film we watched had portrayed his mood. Van Gogh had written about the countryside in Arles and how it had improved his spirit (up until that whole ear incident). Van Gogh talked about how much time he was spending outside and how productive his work output was during the time he could paint en plein air. I think this is something that we can all relate to; the first day of being outside in the warmth and sunshine after weeks of winter stuck inside avoiding the Atlanta rain can make me feel like I escaped something just shy of seasonal affective disorder. Well besides you and me, it seems that others have been onto this phenomenon for a while now too. In fact, the term “ecotherapy” has been coined as “an umbrella term for a gathering of techniques and practices that lead to circles of mutual healing between the human mind and the natural world from which it evolved” (Chalquist, 2009).
Courtyard garden in an Arles hospital where Van Gogh stayed briefly and his painting of it
It has been documented that merely looking at nature or natural elements can provide restoration from stress and mental fatigue while reducing feelings of anger, frustration and aggression. This has indicated that the “aesthetic experience of nature” can play a beneficial role in affecting mood (Groenewegen, van den Berg, de Vries, & Verheij, 2006). Some studies utilize the visual sensory system in order to test the effects of nature images on neural processing and well-being; however, the experience of nature cannot be reduced to singular modalities but rather is holistic and encompasses all the sensory systems in the body. Therefore, many of the studies that I looked at examined and quantified aspects of well-being that are harder to measure. A study of 57 people with serious and persistent mental illness was conducted where they participated in an outdoor adventure program involving weekly full day outings for 9 weeks. At the end of the study, there were statistically significant increases on the Generalized Self-Efficacy Scale (a 10-item psychometric scale that assesses optimistic self-beliefs to cope with a variety of difficult demands in life) in the experiment group compared to the control group that did not undergo outdoor exposure. The experimental group also showed significant reductions in scores on the Anxiety and Depression subscales of the Brief Symptom Inventory (BSI), a test that evaluates psychological distress and psychiatric disorders. Patients with affective or schizoaffective disorders, mental health disorders we discussed Van Gogh having the possibility of having, showed an increase in scores on the Trust and Cooperation Scale, and decreased BSI Hostility and Interpersonal Sensitivity (Kelley, Coursey, & Selby, 1997).
General mechanisms to explain relationships between green space and health, well-being, and social safety
In a 2010 meta-analysis (a statistical procedure for combining data from multiple studies) that analyzed 10 UK studies of environment and health that involved over 1252 participants, every green environment improved both self-esteem and mood with the presence of water generating greater effects. Outcomes were identified through a subgroup analyses, and dose-responses were assessed for exercise intensity and exposure duration. Based on this meta-analysis, the mentally ill showed one of the greatest self-esteem improvements based on exposure to green environments and nature (Barton & Pretty, 2010).
The number of participants, activity types, environments, and cohorts from each study from the meta-analysis
Ecotherapy studies have also begun a foray into a crossover intervention with art therapy, as both approaches have research supporting their success in the reduction of physiological and psychological symptoms associated with a variety of diagnoses in numerous settings. While a statistically significant correlation between ecotherapy and art therapy has not yet been found, there are many qualitative and case-study research designs that demonstrate the effectiveness of art and eco-therapy interventions (Bessone, 2019).
This weekend in Arles, we saw the various locations around town that Van Gogh drew inspiration from for his paintings, making it quite evident that he was closely connected with his environment. While eco/art therapy are no substitutes for comprehensive mental health care, I hope that Van Gogh was able to find temporary reprieve in his artistic work and the natural beauty of southern France during his time there.
Landscape picture of Arles, France
Barton, J. & Pretty, J. (2010) What is the Best Dose of Nature and Green Exercise for Improving
Mental Health? A Multi-Study Analysis. Environmental Science & Technology, 44, 3947-3955.
Bessone, E. (2019) Implications and Applications of Eco-Therapy on Art Therapy. Expressive Therapies Capstone Theses. 155.
Chalquist, C. (2009) A Look at the Ecotherapy Research Evidence. Ecopsychology, 1, 64-74.
Groenewegen, P.P., van den Berg, A.E., de Vries, S. & Verheij, R.A. (2006) Vitamin G: effects of green space on health, well-being, and social safety. BMC Public Health, 6, 149.
Kelley, M. P., Coursey, R. D., & Selby, P. M. (1997). Therapeutic adventures outdoors: A demonstration of benefits for people with mental illness. Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal, 20(4), 61-73.
Image 1: my own picture
Image 3: from Groenewegen, van den Berg, de Vries, & Verheij, 2006.
Image 4: from Barton & Pretty, 2010