Instead of filling out prescriptions, many UK doctors are telling patients with mild depression and anxiety to grab a set of garden tools. A new movement called “social prescribing” is gaining popularity, and it’s based on the knowledge that not all of what ails us can be fixed with medicine alone. As a result, recreational activities like gardening are being recommended to help people cope with mental health issues.

Good For The Soul

Here’s how it works: people can go to a doctor and get a referral to a community gardening group, with the cost partly covered by the health system. The idea is to help patients create connection in their lives, whether it be to their communities, neighbourhoods, or to a general sense of enjoyment. Patients are usually assigned a mentor who will show them the tricks of the trade and check-in with them as they continue through their healing process.

A study at the University of Gloucestershire found that 1,300 patients in South West England felt a significant improvement in their wellbeing after enrolling in an art course. A researcher at the University of the West of England also spoke to a patient participating in a Devon-based gardening group, who loved that he was treated by others as someone who had something to contribute. Activities like these, whether it be gardening or painting, can help people increase self-esteem or confidence, and can also provide support to those who are grieving. Proponents say it also relieves the financial burden on the health system.

It makes sense, doesn’t it? Leisure activities are so important for us all, regardless of our mental health status. They bring joy to our lives, providing us with a sense of ambition and meaning. Without them, I very much doubt any of us would be in a healthy state of mind.  

Nothing New

Horticultural therapy is actually a time-proven treatment method, its benefits documented since ancient times. In fact, working-garden environments are commonly used in hospitals, nursing homes, and even prisons around the world. Here are a couple of examples:

Riker’s Island

New York City’s main jail complex, on Riker’s Island, houses 7,600 inmates. It’s also home to an urban farm, where a greenhouse offers vocational training to prisoners. They can spend time learning gardening skills, planting and raising flowers. The idea is to help them establish the connection between people and plants, and realize that they have something meaningful to offer in society.

The Douglas Greenhouse

In Montreal, Canada, The Douglas Hospital works with mental health patients with a variety of disorders. The hospital greenhouse is described as a magical place that is both calming and energizing. Patients are given tasks like planting seedlings, repotting plants, and watering the gardens. Doctors say the greenhouse program supports patient recovery by giving them important roles to play.  

These programs are obviously set up by institutions to help people who need it the most. But what’s nice about this “social prescribing” movement is that it encourages all of us to involve ourselves in community activities, such as gardening, to keep positive.

Mixed Evidence

Evidence of how effective the social prescribing movement is has been mixed so far. A review by BMJ Open found most studies on the subject were too small-scale and biased to truly determine its success. It suggested that people with more severe forms of anxiety and depression might need more intervention, and could use gardening or similar activities in conjunction with other therapies and medications. Certainly, a valid point.  

Still, social prescribing is an interesting alternative to coping with some major health issues whether it be depression, chronic illness or even ageing. Encouraging people to be social and acquire new skills is never a bad thing. Gardening, in particular, can provide us with a sense of peace and tranquillity, as well as the desire and motivation to care deeply for another living thing. No matter what your skill level, there’s always something to learn in gardening. And there’s always something you can contribute.

It’s good for the earth, but it’s also good for the soul.

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Catherine Sherriffs
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Catherine Sherriffs

Catherine has a degree in journalism and political science from Concordia University in Montreal. She worked in radio and television as a reporter and news anchor for ten years before starting a family. Now, she's living a quiet country life raising her two young kids with her husband and is loving every second of it. Her interests include healthy eating, fitness, animals, and anything outdoors.
Catherine Sherriffs
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