Growing and gardens are good for you

We have long known that gardening is great for physical health, but gardens also benefit people with mental health issues – so much so that they are being used to complement traditional medical care

Tim KendallThe feeling of relief you can get from being outdoors in the fresh air... it can blow away the emotional cobwebs, and revive us if we’re feeling run down. But have you ever considered it as a way of dealing with anxiety and depression, or helping to counter the impact of severe mental illness?

As I'm sure most keen gardeners would attest, being out in the garden or on an allotment has a real and positive effect on both mind and body. At a basic level it is a fantastic form of exercise, whether you are looking to lose a few pounds or just wanting to be more active.

There is enough variety of tasks to be done in a garden throughout the year to regularly use all the core components of a good workout but, of course, you don’t need to be doing anything strenuous to benefit. Regular, light to moderate exercise is just as important for your physical health and is sufficient to trigger complex activity within our brains which releases chemicals that not only help us to feel good, but also help to protect and improve cognitive function and behaviour.

Gardening is a great option for people who cannot manage or face exercising in a gym, and, some might argue, provides other benefits your local fitness centre is probably unable to.

Creating healthy communities

For many of us, the sights, smells and colour created by nature at work provides a sanctuary from the stresses of day-to-day life. These strains can, and often do, feel magnified if you are staying or working within the walls of a hospital.

Fortunately, even the smallest garden or pots crowded onto a balcony can provide some solace. There are some wonderful examples of projects doing just that within the NHS such as the wildlife garden at the ambulance station in Batemoor in Sheffield, which was created by staff; NHS Trusts creating beautiful gardens attached to oncology or children’s units; and the incredible work of charity Horatio’s Garden at the nation’s regional spinal centres which are designed to be accessible by beds.

Having a better view and access to open space has been shown to promote healing. Anecdotal and academic research indicates our care environment (not least having something nice to look at) improves recovery rates and reduces the levels of stress and pain reported by patients. It can also improve quality of life for people staying in a restricted setting, for whatever reason, and where behaviour may be challenging. Studies suggest this works on various levels – reducing stress, anger and aggression – and benefits staff and service users alike.

More clearly understood is how gardening brings people and communities together, and this has a tremendous benefit for mental health. We are, after all, social animals and generally feel better when we are among friends. One of the key drivers of common mental health difficulties, particularly in older people, is loneliness, and so getting people involved in an activity that not only brings the many benefits outlined above but also offers companionship and peer support can be truly transformative.

For this reason the NHS in England is investing in the rapid expansion of the social prescribing workforce to help support people by linking them into gardening as an additional tool to improve health and wellbeing. For some people, a gardening group such as that offered through the Lambeth GP Food Co-op, may reduce feelings of anxiety or depression. For others, living with more severe conditions and illness who need specialist support, gardening can be an effective addition to their care, and hospitals have long used it for its therapeutic value.
Around the RHS

Soothing troubled minds

It seems there is a quiet but powerful rhythm to gardening which is good for people living with severe mental illness. The life cycle of plants and changing seasons provides a heartbeat of activity. Whether you would call it mindfulness, meditation or something else, the effect can be a potent one. In a hospital setting, a garden can offer a different level of routine, one that is not built around medication, group therapy, examinations and consultations.

And, of course, there is an immense value and pride to be gained through working with nature to transform a patch of land into something rich and wonderful. These are all reasons why we were delighted to accept the offer from the RHS last year to gift a garden to a mental health trust during the 70th year of the NHS. The potential benefits were not lost on anyone, and we were amazed by the enthusiasm of the RHS, the number of entries to the competition to win it, and the response of those who saw it during RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2018.

Visitors included staff from Tees, Esk and Wear Valleys NHS Foundation Trust, who were so inspired they teamed up with local charity Scarborough Survivors to launch a gardening project of their own at Cross Lane Hospital in Scarborough. It is bringing people with experience of mental ill health together, building their self-worth, and helping to forge connections in the local community that can support people as they come out of hospital. They meet every two weeks to grow fruit and vegetables and tend to the gardens, and this year have their sights on expansion with a polytunnel and allotment.

From flower show to place of solace

In London, Matt Keightley’s ‘RHS Feel Good Garden’ from the Chelsea Flower Show 2018 is now in place at Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust, being enjoyed by staff and patients. He designed it with these users in mind, carefully choosing rich-textured planting and offering plenty of places to sit and enjoy the
surroundings, as well as plenty of tasks to keep people engaged and active.

The new garden is located within the Trust’s Highgate Mental Health Centre. Surrounded on three sides, it is adjacent to the trust’s ward for older people with mental health problems, including dementia, psychosis and severe depression, and can be used by people of all ages from other wards, as well as by staff and visitors.

Feedback has been fantastic. For one gentleman, who has dementia and used to be a keen gardener, being able to get out and see it taking shape got him involved in the activity he loves. Others have spoken to staff about how it helped them come to terms with their admission to the hospital, which for many people can cause enormous distress.

The trust has developed a booklet for people to use to identify plants, in order to add to their appreciation of their new garden. I have seen firsthand the positivity this garden has brought to Camden and Islington and am delighted and proud to be involved in helping the RHS gift another garden to an NHS mental health trust this year.

For all that I’ve said, it is easy to underestimate the potential impact these gardens can have. When many people using our mental health services have no home, let alone a garden, and most are struggling to hold on through the challenges that life has thrown at them, having something like this designed for them, to help them, is uniquely powerful.

Ultimately, it is fair to say, a garden is one of those things that can give people purpose and hope at times when they feel they have neither.

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The Royal Horticultural Society is the UK’s leading gardening charity. We aim to enrich everyone’s life through plants, and make the UK a greener and more beautiful place.