May is Mental Health Awareness Month. The Magic Valley Master Gardener Association joins with others in supporting this period of increased emphasis on protecting and strengthening mental. What does gardening have to do with mental health? Quite a bit!
One exciting trend in the treatment of mental illness is horticultural therapy. Horticultural therapy is defined by the American Horticultural Therapy Association (AHTA) as the engagement of a person in gardening and plant-based activities, facilitated by a trained therapist, to achieve specific therapeutic treatment goals. Multiple universities have implemented such programs which combine study in both psychology and horticulture. The genesis of horticultural therapy goes back to colonial times.
Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was the first American doctor to approach mental illness as a set of treatable disorders. He speculated that it was caused by disease, chemical imbalances or sensory overload. Among other observations, he noticed that his patients who spent time gardening improved much more rapidly than others. He advocated gardening as part of restorative therapy. He helped found the College of Physicians of Philadelphia in 1787 and urged the college to establish a medicinal garden to replenish its own apothecary and to provide a tranquil place for relaxation. In 1937 the College finally established that garden. It contains over 60 medicinal herbs that have current or historical medicinal value. Benches under the shade of a large magnolia tree provide a place for meditation. Today, the American Psychiatric Association Seal carries at its center a drawing of Dr. Benjamin Rush, acknowledging him as the Father of American Psychiatry.
As a nation, we have made progress in our understanding of mental health. Unfortunately, our modern lifestyle often makes matters worse. We live with chronic stress, and our “to do” list nags us daily with tasks that need to be done yesterday. We lose patience with those we see as slowing us down. We want the latest electronic device that shaves nanoseconds off tasks. We are conflicted about life itself. We love life but find it difficult. We bear “the whips and scorns of time” that drove Hamlet to the edge of suicide but, like the melancholy Dane himself, often find ourselves asking, “what’s the point?” Against this backdrop, gardening offers gentle but powerful restorative therapy. The imminent garden writer, Ken Druse, makes a compelling case. “Gardening,” he writes, “is an antidote to this manic pace . . . Plants don’t mature in nanoseconds. They follow the pace of the natural world, which for most of time has been the only measure of time; the passage of days and seasons, the annual cycle of death and rebirth.”
Even after a few minutes working in the garden, we find ourselves caught in the rhythm of nature. This itself is palliative. The exercise involved in planting, weeding and pruning makes further contributions to physical and mental wellbeing. Levels of serotonin and dopamine increase, bringing positive feelings. Meanwhile, levels of cortisol (associated with stress) decrease. Research has shown that gardening lowers blood pressure and triggers feelings of self-worth. Evidence suggests that just being around plants soothes the soul. Roger Ulrich of Texas A&M University has done multiple studies that demonstrate the benefits of horticulture for patients. One study revealed that patients recovering from gallbladder surgery who had a view of trees had fewer complications and required less time in the hospital and less pain medication than those who viewed a brick wall.
There is still much we don’t understand about mental health and mental illness. But this we do know: Self-absorption is often accompanied by depression. While gardening, we turn our attention away from ourselves and towards other living beings. We become nurturers of the plants in our care and stewards of the environment. As we mature as gardeners, we develop a sense of interconnectedness with all living things. We discover what Albert Schweitzer meant by “reverence for life.” All life. That brings with it peace and tranquility, the very fabric of mental health.
Ralph Waldo Emerson experienced what many of us have felt. “When I go into my garden with a spade and dig a bed, I feel such an exhilaration and health that I discover that I have been defrauding myself all this time in letting others do for me what I should have done with my own hands.”
On May 5 there will be a Mental Health Fun Run/Walk at 10 a.m. at the CSI Expo Center. The event is free and there is no entrance fee. The Magic Valley Master Gardener Association will be there along with other organizations supporting this important event in recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month. We encourage all to take part.
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