Can Trees Treat Trauma?

Can Trees Treat Trauma?
Cyclamen flowers photo by Avner Rinot

“Nature Heals” program by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel provides eco-therapy experiences that help restore the soul

by Rachel Canar, Executive Director of Nature Israel

Each Spring, we are reminded that life returns even after the dark and cold winter. Life always finds a way to the sun. Like a flower growing out of a rock, or between the cracks of pavement, nature models resilience.

This is the kind of healing that the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel is providing. For 70 years the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) has been healing Israeli nature. Now, SPNI is helping nature heal Israelis.

“The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel may not seem the most obvious source of help right now, but they gave us exactly what we needed.”

These are the words of a parent whose teen participated in one of SPNI’s three-day desert camp experiences. SPNI has always led camping trips for youth, hikes, nature walks, and all kinds of environmental education for all ages. But during this difficult period, SPNI’s famous eco-tourism has become eco-therapy with more than 100,000 Israelis participating in our Nature Heals programming from November 2023 to May 2024, enjoying everything from simple nature walks and birding trips to more strenuous hikes, activities for all ages in urban nature sites, and even challenging desert camping trips.

The Nature Heals program grew out of SPNI’s October 7th emergency response, when we opened our field schools in southern Israel to families from S’derot, Ofakim and others fleeing the attacks on that horrific day. SPNI field schools across the country were quickly filled with Israeli families who had fled the south and the north, providing them with food, housing and loving care which included nature activities at these ecological sites. 

Hikers from Eilat Field School

The families were incredibly appreciative and it became clear that the natural surroundings combined with SPNI’s nature activities had a palliative effect. These activities were soon extended to those families who were housed in hotels – internal refugees from the north and south of the country.

SPNI CEO Dan Alon realized that we had alighted upon a way to help people who were suffering – when they got out into nature and away from screens full of re-traumatizing social media and bad news, they simply felt better. The first eco-therapy trips were organized as early as November.

It is well known that the horrors of October 7th, the ongoing war and hostage crisis have taken a major psychological toll on Israelis. Several studies suggest that as many as one in three Israelis now suffer from mental health issues like anxiety, stress and depression.

The Director of Mental Health Services for Israel’s Health Ministry, Dr. Gilad Bodenheimer, called for innovative solutions and non-pharmacological methodologies to help support potentially millions of people after October 7th.

Nature Heals is one natural response.

It is remarkable how time in nature can soothe the soul. The why is not totally clear. Maybe it is the feeling that there is something bigger than us, that life and the cycles of nature continue, regardless of the follies of humans. Maybe it is a feeling of wholeness, as we stand in awe of the miracle of life - its majesty and diversity. The scientific evidence is there to back it up as well. Indeed, the Israeli Medical Association has endorsed our eco-therapy programming.

But perhaps the most compelling proof is in the testimonials from participants.

A family shared with us after leaving one of our field schools: “I have no words to describe how completely relaxed I became in this place - from the tranquility, the serenity, the endless spaces, stepping out into the yard, the surroundings, the people, families, sweet and lovely children we met. It was only here that I was able to truly relax.”

One mother who had been alone with three children for months said: "Thank you for the warm and welcoming activity and for helping us breathe together in nature.”

Campers of a youth class in the Golan Heights Photographer: Gali Valensi

Early on, SPNI’s Nature Heals initiative included programs for individuals and families, parents struggling on their own while their partners were on military reserve duty for months, and for the soldiers themselves returning from service.

The program that has had the most measurable success has been the Wilderness Camps for Teens. Thousands of displaced youths, stuck in hotel rooms with their entire family since October 7th, without school and no idea when or if they can ever go home, are truly struggling. They have suddenly become youth at risk, with wide reports of drug and alcohol abuse, or simply teens who have completely shut down.

A trip of evacuees in the Dead Sea

A mother from a kibbutz in the south shared that her son had refused to leave his hotel room for three months and cut himself off from contact with his friends. “Taking the bus to camp was the first time he had left the hotel. Reuniting with his friends at camp for the first time since October was extremely emotional for him. This trip brought him out of himself and he has remained in touch with his friends since."

Since November, SPNI has organized 40 wilderness trips and the demand continues to grow as word-of-mouth spreads about this extraordinary experience. The initial evaluation is remarkable: 92% of participants reported experiencing a reduction of anxiety and stress, 82% of parents said their teens were less anxious following the camp experience, and 100% of parents thought that the trips were meaningful.

Surely, many Israelis still need professional therapy and this program does not intend to replace it. Yet these nature experiences offer respite and build resilience and provide a way to help many people in the here and now. Also, because the trauma is ongoing, with hundreds of thousands of Israelis still evacuated and unable to return home, experts are recommending resilience building activities as what is most needed at this time.

SPNI will continue to provide this eco-therapy for hundreds of thousands of Israelis helping to heal a traumatized nation. The organization is continuing to improve upon the Nature Heals model, and working with a variety of partners, including the Israeli municipalities in the Gaza border area. With the help of Israeli school systems nationwide, we are planning for 80 groups of teens to go on four-day trips called “Resilience Journeys” during the 2024 - 2025 school year. The Israeli Ministry of Environment is matching donations up to $400,000 to ensure that everyone who needs to experience the healing power of nature can participate.

At the outset of the Israeli spring, one of SPNI’s senior managers who was serving in reserve duty in the area of the Nova Festival massacre posted an unassuming photo showing newly bloomed purple wildflowers. This photo was remarkable because they were growing exactly in what was just a few months earlier scorched, blood-soaked earth. Nature has a profound message to teach us: Life continues.

To find out more about this program visit www.natureisrael.org
If you are in Israel, and interested in participating, visit www.teva.org.il


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