In this Women’s Lives, Women’s Voices feature, Inishowen woman Michaela Mc Daid shares her extensive personal and professional experience of mental health and how this led her to Ecotherapy. She also outlines Nature in Mind courses and why the facilitation she provides in Ecotherapy is so popular in the North West.
Mental health has profoundly impacted all areas of my personal life. At 16 I lost my only sister Katrina to suicide. She called me and I resuscitated her, but she still died. She was 18. By age 20 I still hadn’t grieved the loss of my sister, or talked about the trauma and tragedy of her death. When I sought professional help, I was diagnosed with depression and prescribed anti- depressants. This made it easier not to talk, and just keep going. So, that’s what I did.
In the 20 years that followed I moved house 11 times between Donegal, London, Derry and Donegal again. Teenage pregnancy, single parenthood, financial pressure, an abusive relationship and addiction were all life experiences that layered stress on top of my vulnerable emotional health. There was also more grief; I lost my Mum in my 20’s and Dad in my 30’s. My constant underlying feeling was of being utterly alone.
During this time, ‘depression’ was a very private battle. I was consumed by self loathing, often numb with sadness and felt completely disconnected. But I only ever cried inwardly, screamed silently and hurt myself in secret. To the outside world, I was a bubbly fitness instructor, motivating others through high energy aerobics classes with a wide smile and perfect physique. I also returned to education and excelled academically, graduating top of my class and earning a scholarship for post graduate studies. I was a loving and conscientious Mother, managing a well kept home. I was also a sociable and popular friend, always the ‘together one’ that others came to for support.
As a patient of mental health services, I was compliant and co-operative. I took medications as prescribed and engaged fully with psychiatrists, psychotherapists, mental health nurses and counsellors. I attended support group meetings and educated myself with countless self help books. I fully accepted that I was ‘unwell’ and would have done anything to get better.
Then, in my 30’s I experienced elation and psychosis, was re-diagnosed bipolar and prescribed lithium. With this diagnosis came a sense of relief that maybe I had previously been misdiagnosed, so now things would get better. Things got worse; the highs got higher and the lows got lower. This intensity coupled with sheer exhaustion, resulted in more frequent and commanding suicidal thoughts. Twice, I was hospitalised for my own safety. My ever changing prescription now consisted of daily anti-depressant, mood stabiliser, anti – psychotics, anti- anxiety and sleeping medications. I wasn’t forty yet.
Running parallel to this personal experience was a very successful career, being described as ‘high functioning’ meant both were possible. I knew my calling was to work in mental health, but wasn’t attracted to psychiatry, nursing or clinical settings, I was equally unsure of a role in psychotherapy or counselling. My heart was in the community and I believed passionately in education as empowerment.
I worked throughout Northern Ireland and Donegal for Aware, Action Mental Health, National Learning Network and freelance; devising and delivering educational programmes, facilitating support groups and voluntarily advocating for other service users. In these various roles, I was privileged to work with the broadest cross section of our society; urban and rural, all age groups, in schools, universities, community settings, churches, ethnic minority groups, traveller projects, LGBTQ+, the prison population, disability groups, domestic violence survivors, sports clubs and businesses.
The appetite for knowledge on the subject was striking, and listening attentively to peoples’ experiences of mental health and illness meant that I learned as much as I taught. ‘Being heard’ and ‘feeling connected’ were the most common responses to the question ‘what helped?’ This resonated deeply with me. There was another theme that I heard over and over again: “Gardening . . . . pets . . . .fishing . . . . the park . .. the beach . . . outdoors.” It was nature. Without direction, irrespective of background, people repeatedly told me that they were drawn to nature for easing mental and emotional distress.
I reviewed my own mental health history and the correlation was equally strong. When I struggled in London, I went to Hampstead Heath. When I struggled in Derry I walked my dog on the country roads outside the city. Even when I was an inpatient on suicide watch in Gransha, my greatest motivation for discharge was to get to the woods beside the hospital! The more dis-eased I was, the stronger the pull to be in green outdoor spaces.
Having exhausted every external treatment available to me, I chose for the first time to consciously tune in to my intuition, and let it guide my healing. I moved to the countryside and immersed myself in nature; gardening, hill-walking and sea swimming. I didn’t know then that what I was doing had a name; Ecotherapy. The results were incredible. Within three years I was entirely medication free, with no depression, elation, anxiety or psychosis. I was enjoying better mental and physical health than I had ever known, or thought possible.
I was mindful that my experience was unique to me and that medication and talking therapies were beneficial for many. But remained convinced that reconnecting with nature is a powerful, accessible and free way to improve mental health, yet this value isn’t reflected in services.
With serendipity I found Solas Donegal, a HSE mental health recovery programme using a model of walking, talking and listening in green spaces. Having operated successfully in Falcarragh for many years, Solas opened a part time service in Buncrana in early 2019 and I was employed as a peer support worker. Completing Ecotherapy training gave me the history, framework, references, evidence and language for what I already knew; nature heals. This isn’t some hippy dippy, tree hugging nonsense, or just something that works for me. This is an evidence based, globally recognised approach to mental health care that predates both psychotherapy and the medical model.
It Just Makes Sense
Through Solas, I attended the Critical Perspectives in Mental Health Conference in University College Cork which brought together pioneering projects offering user centred, non – medical, context and trauma- informed ways of helping people experiencing mental distress and crisis. These projects were centre stage instead of being sidelined as ‘alternative’, as they had been in the countless conferences I had attended throughout my career. As well as the personal stories, I was captivated by the multi – disciplinary, world renowned specialists presenting academic research, irrefutable evidence and statistics that challenged the current system and dominance of the medical model. The language was that of education, empathy, compassion, holding space, co-production, peer-support, creativity, community and open dialogue. All that I had felt, experienced and believed was not only being taken seriously, but was recognised as an effective approach to mental health care. Now I had a clear direction for my purpose and passion.
The success of Solas further underlined my learning. Participants are referred to the programme from within the HSE mental health team, so are already ‘in the system’ receiving treatment and support for (often chronic) mental illness. Without a doubt; walking, talking and listening in green spaces was having a hugely positive impact on their mental health. My background in the community sector meant my focus remained on a proactive and preventative approach through education, empowerment and building resilience, before a person became unwell, and before they were in the system.
I devised ‘Nature in Mind’ courses with a view to supporting people with Ecotherapy, no matter where they were on the mental health spectrum. A person with good mental health, taking the initiative to apply self care, or a person with a diagnosis of a mental illness and currently using medication and/ or talking therapies would both benefit, so why make a distinction? There is no waiting list, assessment, analysis, diagnosis or side effects. These courses are not support groups, counselling or psychotherapy. It is much simpler than that. It is human connection, stillness and creating time and space for the healing power of nature and the outdoors.
I’m not the therapist – nature is! The relationship between participant and nature already exists, but may have been ignored or undervalued. As a facilitator, I highlight and strengthen this relationship in three ways: education, experience and connection. I provide mental health education and a broad knowledge of Ecotherapy in a relaxed and informal way, without a PowerPoint presentation! This explains why nature is good for us. How nature is good for us is highlighted through the experience of forest bathing, sea swimming, hiking, guided walks and woodland retreats.
For longer courses I also connect groups with co- facilitators who have a deeper knowledge and expertise in a specific area such as horticulture, foraging, animal assisted therapy, fly fishing, care farming and bushcraft. Courses for specific groups are imbedded in their local community, forging relationships that are sustainable after the course has ended. Long term attitudinal change is also supported through the ‘Keeping Nature in Mind’ element, which gives advice, discussion and practice to encourage small and practical ways of embracing nature every day, in an urban environment, and in participants own homes.
Group connection happens very naturally in the right environment, with the right facilitation. Time and space is held for participants to talk to each other and me, because simply having your voice heard is a vital part of emotional wellbeing. This is increasingly lost to hectic lifestyles, technology and social isolation. Within mental health support services, a ‘listening ear’ is often devalued in pursuit of analysis, record – keeping, diagnosis and intervention. A group dynamic is even more powerful when balanced with time for safe solitary reflection and an atmosphere contusive to participants only ever contributing as much as is comfortable for them.
Respectful that for some people, a group setting is always difficult, I also offer one to one sessions. These can be used as an introduction prior to joining a group, as extra support whilst part of the group, or as a preferable alternative. Meeting people wherever they are up to is not only critical for meaningful engagement, it is also kind.
For many, the experience of corona virus and lockdown has led to a renewed appreciation of the simple things in life. Ecotherapy celebrates simplicity by stripping back the layers of our lives that can be so stifling, allowing us to breathe deeply. I believe that the hugely positive interest in Donegal is partly due to the accessibility of beautiful outdoor spaces. It is also the ‘common sense’ part, that connecting to nature, each other and ourselves makes us feel better. What could be more important than that?
Tel: (0044) 7517936613
Remember you are not alone, there are people you can talk to. If you or any one you know needs some support for your mental health, please know you can find support with the following services;
24/7 Freephone Tel: 1800 247 247 or Text HELP to 51444
Professional one-to-one therapeutic service to people who are in suicidal distress, those who engage in self-harm, and those bereaved by suicide. All services are provided free of charge and no referral is needed.
Tel: 116 123
Samaritans provides confidential non-judgemental support, 24 hours a day for people experiencing feelings of distress or despair, including those which could lead to suicide.