Green Thumbs Can Lead to Healthy Minds

Posted on September 4, 2012

“I get a sense of achievement from my gardening and most people can feel that, whether it is from growing tomatoes or bulbs.” Gavin McCabe, Schizophrenic Thrive Project UK

For decades, horticulture – the science and art of growing flowers and plants – has been shown to lower blood pressure, reduce recovery time from surgeries, diminish the symptoms of chronic arthritis and provide other substantial health benefits. However in the past few years there has been growing interest in the role horticulture plays in promoting mental health, even among the most psychiatrically challenged individuals. Most of this interest is coming across the Atlantic from England where mental health organizations have been researching the benefits of gardening for people with schizophrenia and other psychiatric disorders.

Mind (2007) published a meta-report that used research data and case studies (from over 40 British initiatives spanning 12 years) to demonstrate that “ecotherapy” is a simple, cost-effective means of improving well-being, reducing re-hospitalizations and engendering other mental health benefits among people with severe and persistent psychiatric disabilities.

J. Fieldhouse published a report four years earlier that found a gardening group has two key benefits: the first involves cognitive benefits of enhanced mood, reduced arousal and improved concentration; the second is the social nature of the group – the need to cooperate with each other to achieve the end goal. Fieldhouse (2003) concluded that this type of intervention is beneficial, because it focuses on skills and aspirations rather than symptoms and deficits. (Fieldhouse, J. (2003) The impact of an allotment group on mental health clients’ health, well-being and social networking. British Journal of Occupational Therapy; 66: 7, 286–296.) This report along with others led to a rapid increase in the spread of ecotherapies across Great Britain.

In 2008 M. Page, another British researcher, published an often cited article ( ) about the therapeutic benefits of plant s for mental health. She suggested that they significantly improved people’s hope, pointing out that hope “is an intrinsic requirement in gardening.”

Currently thousands of people challenged with mental illness are engaged in a variety of government and privately funded therapeutic horticulture projects across England. Only now are US mental health promoters looking for ways to utilize gardening as a way of improving people’s mental health in psychiatric settings.

Fountain House has had an active Horticulture Unit for over 30 years in which 141 individuals with Axis I psychiatric diagnoses participate every month. The Horticulture Unit maintains three outside gardens at Fountain House, provides and arranges fresh flowers for all the units and residences, and recently has started growing food on its rooftop garden and hydroponically for the Culinary Unit. Fountain House also manages Fountain House Farm at High Point – 500 acres in New Jersey where members can benefit from the positive mental health effects of cultivating plants in a beautiful natural environment. Long before the term “ecotherapy” was coined, Fountain House has been committed to developing horticultural working communities to help people mitigate the effects of severe mental illness.

-Elliott Madison

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