Growing for Mental Health

“What are the potential therapeutic benefits of growing plants and vegetables”

Growing for Mental Health

“What are the potential therapeutic benefits of growing plants and vegetables”? I ask a group of fifteen adults as part of an introductory session on therapeutic horticulture in an Acute Psychiatric Day Hospital in Dublin. The answers are slow to come at first, but soon gather momentum, as one voice prompts another.  

“It gives you hope…when, maybe, you don’t have any”, says one woman.

“You nurture something, the way you should be nurturing yourself…but can’t… because you’re too depressed”, says a young man.

 “It gets you out of your head…into your hands”, says another.

Gathered around a table heaped high with potting compost half an hour later, and pairs of hands are working in tandem, pinching and kneading out lumps.  One woman rolls up her sleeves, looks up, smiles and says “this is just like making bread”.

Horticulture and mental health: a potted history

The therapeutic benefits of gardens for people with mental ill-health have long been recognised. The first recorded use of horticulture as a treatment modality was in ancient Egypt, where court physicians prescribed walks in the palace gardens for royalty who were mentally disturbed. In 1100, St Bernard of Clairvaux introduced gardens in the monastery hospice as a means of aiding patients. In 1768, Dr Benjamin Rush, considered to be the first psychiatrist, maintained that “digging in the soil seemed to have a curative effect on the mentally ill”, paving the way for the active use of horticulture in treating people with mental ill-health. By 1806, hospitals in Spain were emphasising the benefits of agricultural and horticultural activities. Dr. Gregory in North Scotland was reported to have gained fame in the early 1800s for curing insanity by compelling his patients to work on his farm. In 1880 Dr Thomas Kirkbride, founder of the American Psychiatric Association described working in a garden setting as “one of the best remedies; it is as useful in improving the health of the insane, as in maintaining that of the sane”.

It is this propensity for horticulture to both heal, and promote health, in equal measure that makes it such a powerful therapeutic tool, as evidenced by the flourishing research being carried out worldwide.

Taking action

One in four of us will experience mental health difficulties at some stage in our lives in Ireland. Anyone who has experienced depression will be all too familiar with the way it can leave one feeling depleted of energy and lacking in motivation, such that moving oneself to initiate even the seemingly simplest of tasks can constitute an extraordinarily difficult feat. Gwyneth Lewis describes this feature of depression in her book Sunbathing in the Rain “I did move occasionally, but this took huge effort. Everything had stopped flowing inside me, was stuck”.

Lethargy and decreased motivation contribute to a cyclical of negative thinking, rumination, a characteristic of depression. Lethary leads to procrastination. Tasks are left undone, and objects remain unmoved, taking on a negative force; embodiments of latent potential. The key to unlocking this potential is to take action, and carrying out horticultural tasks necessarily involves action.  

Growing with the flow

Flow is a subjective state that exists when an individual is totally involved in an activity and is characterised by enjoyment, self-motivation and feelings of self-worth. Task oriented activities are the hallmark of any therapeutic horticultural programme, lending themselves perfectly to being adapted and graded according to the individual’s needs in terms of their capabilities and expertise.

Experiencing the present, as it is

Mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques focus on enabling the individual to experience the present, as it is, by working with bodily sensations. Our tendency, when experiencing uncomfortable emotions, is to want to push them away, by means of avoidance and distraction. Horticulture brings us into the present as we engage in activities which keep us grounded, taking us “into our hands”. One activity automatically leads to another. How many of us have decided to carry out one small task in the garden to find that hours have gone by in the moment by moment unfolding of time?

Cycles of nature

Horticulture brings us into direct contact with the cycles and rhythms of nature. E.O. Wilson refers to the innate affiliation we, as humans, have with nature in his biophilia hypothesis. Wilson argues that our long history as subsistence hunter gatherers and farmers (99% of human history) has shaped how we think, feel and function. He states that “the brain evolved in a biocentric world, not a machine-regulated world”. Providing the opportunity for people experiencing mental health difficulties to re-establish a connection with the natural world, can in and of itself provide a catalyst for healing, especially in a world where every day communication is increasingly dominated by technology.

Digging in the dirt

“A gardener must own a nailbrush”, my late friend Sue had exhorted one morning as I sat at her kitchen table busily liberating compacted soil from under my fingernails, with the sharp-edged cardboard flap from a packet of her cigarettes. She was right. A nailbrush is a must. That said, getting your hands dirty can make one happier. Research by Dr Chris Lowry at Bristol University has revealed that a bacterium in the soil called Mycobacterium vaccae triggers the release of serotonin, which in turn decreases anxiety and elevates mood.

Sowing hope

It’s summer, and the garlic I planted in winter is just about ready. I’d sown it in November in the days immediately after the death by suicide of an old boyfriend. The cloves had sat looking at me for weeks, and each day I passed them, promising myself I’d do it soon. Sure, it was too cold out. Too wet. Too early. Nearly too late.

As the numbness gave way to grief, I found myself outside, clad against the Leitrim  wind and rain, spade in hand, shovelling barrows of rotted manure from field to raised bed and back again. I removed stones, forked through clay, dug, raked and hoed, until I felt ready to lay them out in three neat rows; the purple tinge against the dark earth a promise of life ahead.