Horticultural therapy for mental health

Experts now say horticultural therapy may be helpful in treating mental illness. Find out how mental health can be nurtured by this hands-on approach

Horticultural therapy for mental health

Source: Best Health Magazine, Spring 2008; Photo by Christopher Stevenson

“What you want is some fresh air and exercise. That will lift your spirits.’ So a cheerful relative of mine always used to say, whenever my anxiety began to overwhelm me and I found myself hunkered down and bug-eyed on a couch. The advice seemed far too quaint’like something a country doctor might say in Victorian England, before the days of Valium and Paxil. But maybe, after all, there was real wisdom to the urging.

I reflect on this one fall afternoon in the rolling hills of Caledon, Ont., as I watch a young man who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia ride a horse on the back field of a pretty farm called Peace Ranch. The air is fragrant with hay and apples. A pig snuffles about. Newly carved Halloween pumpkins line the side of a 19th-century brick farmhouse.

The rider slides off the white mare, who bends her head to tug at some dry grass, and walks over to introduce himself. ‘I’m John,*’ he says softly, shaking my hand. He is calm and clear-eyed, the colour high in his cheeks.

‘Nice to meet you,’ I reply. ‘I saw your name on one of the signs over there in the garden plots.’ Each of the 10 full-time farm residents here, all of whom have been diagnosed with a mental illness, gardens and harvests a patch of vegetables. The produce is either served in the farmhouse kitchen or entered for prizes in local county fairs.

‘I’m not very good at gardening,’ John allows, with a shy smile, ‘but I like cooking.’

‘Oh, you’re a great cook!’ says the gregarious executive director of Peace Ranch, Eric Tripp-McKay. The rangy 37-year-old, who has a resemblance to actor Ray Liotta, has been shepherding me about from farmhouse to stable to barn. At least once a week, John prepares dinner for his little farm community. He also tends to the goats, horses, ducks and chickens. The residents are assigned a set of chores as soon as they arrive, after finally making it to the top of the waiting list for this cutting-edge mental health facility’one of a small but growing number of ‘therapeutic farms’ in North America.

Horticultural therapy: Creating a sense of purpose

Neither John nor the other men and women I meet here even remotely resemble the distressed and isolated patients I have seen as a reporter on hospital psychiatric wards, much less the dishevelled wraiths who haunt my downtown Toronto streets, rendered homeless by the extremes of their illness.

In fact, one of the most striking aspects of a therapeutic farm is how difficult it is to distinguish the residents, and the clients who come to Peace Ranch just for the day, from the staff. Everyone ambles about the 23-acre property in mud-stained jeans, busily attending to the animals, the harvest and their chores. ‘If you don’t know who’s who, then we’re doing our job,’ says Christine Pollard with a laugh. She’s a horticultural therapist in Duncan, B.C., who trained some of the staff here.

What’s going on at Peace Ranch seems like a radical concept, but it is actually commonsensical, according to Pollard. Mental health can be nurtured by giving people a sense of hands-on purpose in a community in which their contributions are valued. This is the opposite of the conventional mental health model, where patients are often treated with little more than medication and end up in their own isolated corner of the universe with little to do. Here, they are immediately and continuously engaged in a world of plants and animals that need their care.

‘If you’ll pardon the pun,’ Pollard says, ‘horticultural therapy really grounds you. When your life is in chaos, your garden offers focus and security because it has routine daily and seasonal needs.’

‘The evidence for the therapeutic value of gardens and pets is convincing,’ notes American journalist Richard Louv in his 2006 book, Last Child in the Woods. He cites a number of studies culled from the burgeoning research field known as ‘eco-psychology’ that show how reconnecting with nature can lower blood pressure and calm muscle tension. Some studies point to the benefits of simply seeing and being in the natural world, as if humans are hard-wired to respond more positively to the environment they evolved in, rather than to neon-lit offices and brick walls.

Other research highlights the role of physical exercise in offsetting the symptoms of anxiety, stress and depression. Farm work and gardening can be strenuous, and that in itself is more healing than, in my case, lying bug-eyed on a couch. Peace Ranch residents also ride and hike along the nearby Bruce Trail.

Horticultural therapy: A hands-on approach

An equine therapist in a cowboy hat lounges against the riding fence as Tripp-McKay leads me past a peacock pen to the barn. We come across a burly, dark-haired fellow in his 40s who is grooming a fuzzy-rumped miniature horse. This chestnut creature is charming’smaller than a pony and lively with curiosity. She sniffs me all the way up one leg and down the other before attempting to extract a pack of gum from my jacket.

‘What do you like about being here?’ Tripp-McKay asks the dark-haired man.

‘I like the animals,’ he muses, straightening up and stretching his back. ‘I like working with them. It’s very…tactile.’ He waves his fingers for emphasis.

One of the day visitors, whom I find peeling carrots in the old-fashioned, homey kitchen, tells me that he mostly loves the country air. ‘It knocks you out,’ he explains, rolling his eyes and head back to show what he means, ‘like, whoa. Boom.’ As if the air were a tranquilizer. He used to be a resident’they can stay for up to three years’but now lives in a nearby town and comes to work the garden and sell produce during the growing season.

The phenomenon of therapy in farm and garden settings has spread from one of the original facilities’the Gould Farm, founded in 1913 in the Massachusetts Berkshires, which caters to people with schizophrenia, depression and bipolar illness’to therapeutic farms in Vermont, Ohio, North Carolina and now as far away as Australia. There, a spa called Fountainhead runs ‘Beat the Blues’ retreats on an organic farm in Queensland. Community gardens have really taken off in B.C., where more traditional mental health services have lost funding in recent years.

Pollard offers examples of how the therapist tailors the technique to individual needs. The people she works with in community gardens are as likely to be suffering from addiction, depression or anxiety as other mental illnesses.

‘When someone comes into the program, you do an assessment. What’s the baseline information? Then you can make your measurable outcomes from there.’ With someone contemplating giving up an addiction, she says, you might help them transplant a plant from unhealthy soil to a better part of the garden, and talk about what it needs, what will sustain it. ‘So you’re intentionally setting the scene for them by using the plant as a metaphor.

‘One fellow with social anxiety would slip around buildings when he saw me coming,’ she continues. ‘Then, after a while, he could stand about 20 feet away from me. Then 10. Then it came to a point where he could look me in the eye and ask questions. He had a job to do, he had a purpose, he was needed, and a lot of anxiety fell away as we just worked side by side.’

Mitchell Hewson, who introduced horticultural therapy to Canada at the Homewood Health Centre near Guelph, Ont., has worked with people suffering from eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorders, mood disorders, addictions and grief. He is, he says, increasingly receiving calls from other mental health practitioners who want to learn about his methods. ‘Many healthcare agencies, institutions, prisons and hospitals now realize that horticultural therapy can offer a complementary approach to health care,’ he says, adding that traditional medicine can be more invasive.

It isn’t a question of one silver bullet being substituted for another’antidepressants exchanged for digging in the earth. It’s the subtler and more intermingled approach of treating people’s illness holistically that seems to be attracting the attention of health practitioners.

The sun is waning over Peace Ranch, and I find myself zipping up my jacket against the autumn chill. Tripp-McKay leads me inside, past a mudroom filled with oversized rubber boots and plaid jackets, and shows off the greenhouse they use in the winter. The mulchy space is getting ready to grow lettuce and cherry tomatoes. ‘We’re the only legitimate hydroponic [grow op] in the province,’ he jokes.

Breathing in the earthy aromas, I find myself reluctant to leave the farm and return to the city, particularly at rush hour. I know the jammed-up, polluted clamour of the downtown streets is going to make me feel tense’it just never occurred to me there was much I could do about the feeling.

‘The way I like to put it,’ says Tripp-McKay, reflecting on his deceptively simple back-to-the-land approach, ‘is that we’re pioneering all over again.’

* Name has been changed

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