Tuesday 23 July 2019

Flower power: Gardening your way to better mental health

People affected by mental illness have helped create a showcase garden at Bloom. It's a chance to share their ultimately uplifting stories of recovery, writes Julia Molony

The great outdoors: Park walks and being outside in nature are part of Helena Danaher’s self-care. Photo: Owen Breslin
The great outdoors: Park walks and being outside in nature are part of Helena Danaher’s self-care. Photo: Owen Breslin

Julia Molony

Gardens are good therapy. Scientific evidence supports what lots of people know instinctively - being amongst nature and greenery can help to lift the spirits and offer solace, even in moments of darkest despair. And then there's the act of gardening itself - the physical exercise of digging and hoeing, getting your hands in the soil, or turning your attention to that which is elemental and material. Gardening can be an exercise in mindfulness. It encourages us to engage with the world through our senses, bringing awareness to textures, sights, sounds and smells, and away from troubled minds.

There is a growing body of evidence that supports a link between gardening and emotional wellbeing. One population-based study published in 2016 demonstrated that participants who spent more time in green spaces reported lower levels of psychological distress. In the UK, a new pilot scheme launched by the Royal Horticultural Society earlier this year means that GPs can now prescribe gardening to patients suffering from poor mental health and dementia.

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It's these important benefits that are the thinking behind a new mental health garden that will be open as part of the Bloom in the Park festival later this week. Titled 'Grounded', the garden has been designed by landscape architect and sculptor Maeve O'Neill, who worked in close consultation with a team of people who have lived experience of mental health problems. It is a space designed to reflect what the reality of mental illness is really like, to offer solace through beauty and tranquility, and to open up dialogue about mental health. A garden is usually a shared space, and the idea for Grounded is built on the principle that 'a conversation can be the first step on the journey to recovery.'

Nick Groom, who is a spokesperson for the mental health organisation See Change and is living with borderline personality disorder was involved in the project, and says he was keen to bring "a touch of realism" to the endeavour. He was adamant that the design aspects should accurately reflect the reality of living with mental health problems.

"There's a lot of discussion about mental health at the moment, but a lot of it is quite sanitised," he says. "It's focussing on the people who say that they have recovered and are in a good place. But what we want to get across is that it's not like a physical recovery - not like you have broken your leg and you know that the plaster cast is going to be on for six weeks. Recovery in mental health is very much up and down," he says. "In very many cases it is a long journey and it can be a couple of steps forward and 20 steps backwards."

Nick's own struggles can be traced back to the sexual abuse he suffered as a child. For decades, he told nobody. "A lot of people, myself included, who have suffered childhood trauma, there's awful feelings of shame, guilt, blame that somehow you are inherently evil. When the behaviours of the personality disorder started to manifest, I just thought that I was going mad, or that I was mad, or that I was just evil. So I was trying to cover it up, trying to be normal. And that really ate away at me," he explains.

When he did openly acknowledge the truth, telling his wife, children and parents what had happened to him, it precipitated an emotional unravelling leading him into one of the darkest periods of his life.

Last Christmas, having been diagnosed with both borderline personality disorder and complex depression, he became a voluntary in-patient at St Patrick's Campus in Dublin. He was there for nine weeks and another nine again over the summer, during which time he embarked on intensive therapy. "It's a dark thing to say but it really was an amazing time. I learned so much about myself, learned about the condition, took time out for myself. And got the support that I needed."

Today he is able to say that he is in recovery, but he's keen to emphasise that recovery is complex and lifelong, and there's no neat solution at the end. "It's up and down. There are days that are very dark, and there are days when I think, 'Yeah, great, overall I'm in far better place than I was this time last year'. But you can't put a time-frame on it. You can't say this time next year I'll be cured. It's something that I know that I'll have to work at for the rest of my life. And sometimes you just think it's just easier just to let it take hold of you," he says.

Also on the consultant team is Helena Danaher, who works as a volunteer with Aware Ireland's online Life Skills Programme. Helena had very little interest in nature before she began the long process of recovery from the crippling depression that dominated her late teens and early 20s. These days, maintaining rituals like walking in the park with her dog and enjoying being outdoors have become a pillar of her self-care.

She was in 6th year when she first started to lose the motivation and enthusiasm that had defined her approach to life as a younger child. "I wasn't getting enjoyment out of life, I wasn't really motivated," she says. Her parents and teachers noticed the change and were concerned but Helena had no understanding at the time of what was happening to her.

Things deteriorated as she made the transition to university and came to a head the year she turned 21. She was in San Diego for the summer. "I wasn't okay. I was in such a beautiful place and I felt horrendous," she says.

"I'm a very logical person, I'm good at maths, I'm a data-scientist by profession" - so one of the hardest parts of the experience was not being able to make sense of why she was feeling the way she was. She was young and free, had friends and a loving family. There had been no trigger for how awful she was feeling. On her parents' suggestion, she returned home early, but deteriorated when she was there, eventually taking an overdose. Thus began a 12-week long stint in St John of God's hospital in Dublin during which she underwent cognitive behavioural therapy and dialectical behaviour therapy, the latter which she describes as "life changing." She also practices mindfulness.

She was keen to bring her perspective to the Grounded project. There is a path that runs through the garden, she explains, that represents the road to recovery.

"It's important to show that the road is not smooth," she says. "Just because the road is a bit bumpy doesn't mean you are going backwards. It's just a dip."

Through her work with clients in clinical practice, psychologist Dr Claire Hayes has seen first hand the benefits that gardening and green spaces can offer those who are drawn to them. "I'm hugely supportive of promoting gardening as an activity for all of us as a way of discovering and or developing talents, of strengthening our mental health and of developing a sense of wellbeing," she says.

She is positive too about the benefits of group gardening projects such as Grounded which, she says, are huge. "Such as supporting each other to stick with it, developing persistence, collaboration, a shared goal and of course making friends and having fun. Then there is the huge satisfaction of having accomplished together something that is worthwhile and is of beauty."

She cautions, however, that for patients who struggle with negative self-talk, starting a new activity like gardening should always be handled carefully, with a lot of support and self-compassion. "When we embark on any activity that is supposed to be beneficial to us, regardless of what that activity is, and we bring our own harshness with it, then that's a hurdle that we have to overcome. And I think that can take people by surprise. It can trigger feelings of inadequacy. Any of us can bring the bring the pressures that we have of putting ourselves down into an activity like gardening."

The key, she says, is to go easy on ourselves. "I suppose I would encourage people to be kind to themselves when they are going out gardening."

  • The Grounded Garden will be at the Bloom in the Park festival in Dublin from this Thursday. See bloominthepark.com

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