Angela Stangoe

A Bright Path: From illness, to recovery and a new path: Forest Therapy for Severe & Complex Mental Health Issues in England – An Alternative Therapeutic Approach

You could listen to her for hours. Angela discusses opening hearts and minds, from her childhood in Cyprus, her life in London and a deep crisis: “The woods saved me”, says the Chief Executive of Mind in Hillingdon, a mental health Charity that takes its patients to nature. Angela’s journey has taken her from being a corporate executive to a mental health crisis and then a breakthrough, which she credits nature for, leading her to train as a Psychotherapist and a Forest Therapist. She is taking transformative steps in the Mental Health sector in Great Britain by introducing Forest Therapy as a therapeutic tool. She discusses how Forest Therapy offers people with severe mental health problems a moment of calm, awe, play and sharing with others, something like no other practice provides. She will be part of training team in May at Windsor Park together with FTHub, and Angela will be part of the II Global Summit 16-17 April.

The Black Park to light

“I was brought up in Cyprus and I loved the pine forests up in the mountains, the sea, the lakes but as a child, I don’t think I appreciated, I took nature for granted, until I moved to England, to London, and suddenly I felt terrible. It felt like it was all concrete and everything was on top of me. As a child, you don’t know how to put that into words.

“I did very well in my career. I worked for the BBC in London, in a senior role, at the top of my career. But underneath it all I was really unhappy in myself and became depressed and then suicidal.

“After speaking to my Dr, I went into a rehab and started a therapeutic recovery journey. I went through a process of detoxing; I didn’t realise I was an alcoholic too. While I was there, I found myself spending a lot of time in the gardens, in an apple grove, watching woodpeckers running around, eating apples, gnawing at trees; this was my place of peace and I felt happy there.

“After a month of being in hospital I went home and I started to walk around my local park, appropriately called Black Park, however miraculously this is where I found my light. I would go every day for a walk lasting two hours, I was quite frightened of going into the woods; because of my mental health, I felt it was a scary place. Gradually however I felt it was okay to sit by a tree and watch the wildlife, watch the light, and hear the birds singing – this was the beginning of reconnection to the earth, to nature and to my place in it. So, I had naturally found a way of using the forest as a therapeutic environment whilst not really understanding why or how.

I always say to people that that wood saved me. There was something about being in contact with nature and not being frightened of nature anymore that created a huge nurturing environment for me as an individual. I learned to slow down”. 

Severe mental health problems and a time to connect.

“I decided that I would change career and deep down I had always wanted to work with people, so I trained to be a Psychotherapist, specialising in Addictions work. After qualifying, I ran an Addictions Clinic in London and then eventually became the Chief Executive of Mind in Hillingdon (an area of West London).

“As soon as I saw this thing called know forest bathing, I thought that’s it, that what we need for our service users. I met Alex Guesse, about seven years ago now, on one of the first Forest Bathing training courses in England and after qualifying I introduced forest therapy into our mental health recovery programme; this was a first for our Charity across the UK. For the people using our service it was hard to explain that it wasn’t just a walk in the woods, but after they have been on a session, they feel calm, connected, and relaxed. It really is a healing therapy; people who are suffering from really from quite awful and severe mental health problems find a time to connect and relax.

“And even if they’re really unwell, they can still see something that gives them a sense of awe in nature. I think awe is extremely important because when you’re very unwell, everything seems bleak and black and if you can have one glimmer of light that makes you go, that’s really beautiful, I think that’s the one glimmer sometimes people need.

“It’s been a fascinating journey and a fascinating way of introducing it into the mental health system because it’s so needed, especially in England, where nature therapies are not as highly valued as other countries.

The man with awe

We have an individual who has suffered from schizophrenia for over 45 years. He doesn’t communicate very well mainly because they put him on some heavy medication when he was very young. And we have taken him out on forest therapy walks and there is almost like the childlike wonder that he has of being really amazed about finding things.

He makes my heart sing because he finds life very difficult, yet he finds a childlike awe in some many things in nature. As adults it feels like we are not allowed to be childlike anymore but given the opportunity and space we all like to play. Forest therapy provides this space, it is lovely this to see people transform and have fun.”

“Other people that we work with are people that care for people with severe mental health problems, and they often suffer really badly with anxiety and depression themselves and actually being able to take them out and actually have that sociability or getting together in circles and sharing.

There is something about having a group together where people feel, actually, these people are like me, and I can talk about things, and I can sit and I don’t need to talk about what’s going on in my personal life. All I need to talk about today is what have I seen on the walk? What have I done on the walk? “

Pressing down feelings and Forest Therapy 

“Nature gives you a space, that if you’re willing to go into it and just be present; it allows you a time away from all that other stuff that is going on in your life, which for some people, it’s not great.  Although we’re not talking about what’s going on in their lives, nature sometimes triggers things off for people, and they suddenly have these moments where they’re like, I’ve never thought of something like that. Or that reminded me of…..

“I think there is a real issue, when you’re really unwell mentally, that you can press all of your feelings down and compress them, so you’re not in contact with them anymore, you become ill as a result of that”.

“And I think forest therapy allows people to connect with feelings that are floating about within themselves that they’re just not aware of because they’re not taking the time to connect. So, it’s almost by connecting to the outside, they end up connecting to the inside.

“What’s interesting about forest therapy is that most people, when I start talking to them about it, are, well, you’re just going for a walk in the woods. And I said, no, we’re not. We are going for a walk, but it’s a process that you go through when you’re on that walk”.

Research and play

We allow people to think and connect in a different way and use a different side of their brain that they’re not used to using. And that’s interesting to watch, therapeutically wise. When we did our initial research on it, and we did this for a grant provider to say, what was the improvement from to finish? We were looking at people scoring high on anxiety and depression, and by the time we’d finished, those scores were 50% lower. So, there was a huge sort of impact in that. 

“It’s an interesting therapy because it brings together people as a group, and it also allows people to have the time to go off and maybe connect with nature in a different way. And it allows time for people to play as well. And that’s something.

As adults, we don’t get time to play and be creative very often, and I think that’s part of the healing nature of therapy. But it is the nature that’s doing the work. We’re just facilitating that process”.

Windsor Royal Parks training with FTHub

“So, about the Windsor training, we’ve been really blessed, is the only word I can use. We’ve been given an area of the Royal Park in Windsor that is not normally accessible to the public.

“We’re very lucky to have been able to source that area and we’re very grateful to the Royal Parks for giving us that permission to do that. It’s the first big collaboration between Mind and FTHub. Although I’ve worked with Alex in different ways in the past, this is the first time that we’re working together.

“The idea is really for us is that we expand this type of therapy into mainstream mental health services throughout the UK. And if it means that the charity sector has to start that ball rolling, that’s what I’d like to see.

“So, I’d be particularly interested in people that are therapists coming along to this immersive training. But it would be interesting to share our experiences of working with severe mental illness and general mental illness as well as Forest Therapy can be used as a therapeutic tool. We need to open eyes and hearts“.

 

Courtesy: Angela Stangoe – https://www.mindinhillingdon.org.uk/ 

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