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Gardening Therapy in Mental Health

A Wealth of Benefits

Ashley Dercach, CTRS, BRLS, BHSc
Recreation Coordinator

People experiencing mental health concerns can experience many different symptoms; their physical, social, emotional, spiritual and cognitive health can all be negatively impacted. Fortunately, nature-based therapies can have a positive impact on all these symptoms. At Victoria General Hospital we’ve taken a very practical approach to nature-based treatment by introducing a gardening program, and we are finding that the effect on patients is very positive.

Researchers have found that nature-based therapies improve depression, anxiety, stress, and even schizophrenia. Offering people a chance to spend time doing an enjoyable activity, potentially evoking positive memories of past experiences, and creating new positive memories are all important ways to help them cope with adversity during stressful times. Researchers have also found spiritual benefits from connecting with nature and creating life.

Social isolation is a common attribute of having a mental illness, but nature-based therapies can increase socialization. Participants can build social skills and learn how to work as a team. The development of these skills can lead to better employment options, increased self-worth, self-esteem, motivation and a sense of purpose. Nature-based activity can help participants process and reflect on life stressors which reduces overthinking.  Finally, there are physiological benefits of sunshine and increases in energy that come from nature.

Our gardening program at The Vic looks different throughout the year. In spring, patients prepare the garden and plant seeds. They develop new skills reading seed packets and learning about companion planting. Throughout the growing season, they water, prune, fertilizer and weed. Many patients find therapeutic benefits from the repetitive nature of weeding, and the sense of accomplishment it provides. Towards the end of season, patients harvest the plants, (at least what’s left after the animals have eaten their share!). The produce is then used for cooking group which furthers the connection between food and nature. Patients enjoy the chance to socialize in a relaxed environment.

For some, this is their first exposure to gardening. They can be nervous about trying something new, or about failure. The chance to try a new experience in a safe, supportive environment can be therapeutic. In addition to gardening skills, the program teaches our patients about emotional regulation, healthy coping, and the importance of having both positive experiences and a sense of purpose.

Because nature can be a very sensory experience, patients can practice mindfulness through the gardening program. They can feel the velvety leaves of the lamb’s ear plant, smell the thyme, breathe the fresh air, identify and taste the vegetables. Getting their hands dirty and feeling the earth is generally a positive experience. Patients always seem to be surprised after connecting with nature this way and often ask to keep a piece of nature they connected with.

When our Recreation Therapy staff see a patient experiencing greater relaxation or an improved mood, they help the patient identify the connection with nature, and encourage the patient to pursue nature-based activities at discharge. The staff will provide patients with suggestions on ways to increase exposure to nature in the community in hopes that they will make healthy choices as part of their plans for self-care.  

The gardening therapy program at The Vic is just one example of using information from research to guide our treatment program in a very practical way. We enjoy being able to offer the benefits of nature to our patients, and we are hopeful that this opportunity will provide the spark for them to pursue a future full of positive experiences.


References

Adevi, A., & Mårtensson, F. (2013). Stress rehabilitation through garden therapy: The garden as a place in the recovery from stress. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening12(2), 230–237. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ufug.2013.01.007  

Cipriani, J., Georgia, J., Mcchesney, M., Swanson, J., Zigon, J., & Stabler, M. (2018).  Uncovering the Value and Meaning of a Horticulture Therapy Program for Clients at a Long-Term Adult Inpatient Psychiatric Facility. Occupational Therapy in Mental Health34(3), 242–257. https://doi.org/10.1080/0164212X.2017.1416323

Gonzales, M.T., Hartig, T., Patil, G.G., Martinsen, E.W., & Kirkevld, M. (2011). A Prospective Study on group cohesiveness in therapeutic horticulture for clinical depression. International Journal of Mental Health Nursing, 20, 119-129. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1447-0349.2010.00689.x

Howarth, M., Mcquarrie, C., Withnell, N., & Smith, E. (2016). The influence of therapeutic horticulture on social integration. Journal of Public Mental Health15(3), 136–140. https://doi.org/10.1108/JPMH-12-2015-0050    

Oh, Y., Park, S., & Ahn, B. (2018). Assessment of the psychopathological effects of a horticultural therapy program in patients with schizophrenia. Complementary Therapies in Medicine36, 54–58. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ctim.2017.11.019

Parkinson, S., Lowe, C., & Vecsey, T. (2011). The therapeutic benefits of horticulture in a mental health service. The British Journal of Occupational Therapy, 74(11), 525–534. https://doi.org/10.4276/030802211X13204135680901