Digging for better mental health

Paul in garden

A farmer who lent land for a gardening project is transforming lives and mental health for the better 

11th August 2017 by Robert Armour 0 Comments

It took four furious days and nights for Pete (pictured below) to transform his quarter acre patch into a herb garden. He reflects seriously on that period two years ago when his life was coming to an end. “This place saved me,” he says. “It’s not much but it came to be my life support. It was just me and a patch of soil. But seeing something live, seeing something grow because of my care, meant the world to me. “It gave me something to live for. And that has made all the difference.” 

Pete is just one of thousands of people who are dealing with their mental illness in an innovative new way through ecotherapy - the name given to a wide range of treatment programmes which aim to improve people’s mental and physical wellbeing through doing outdoor activities in nature.

Suffering from psychosis, Pete had suicidal thoughts and had, in his own words, decided to “put an end to it all.” That was until a chance meeting with a family friend changed his life.

“I met Paul in a shopping centre. And he instantly knew I was in a bad place. We talked, he told me he could do with my help on the farm his dad had left him and he wouldn’t take no for an answer. He saved my life.”

The man in question is Paul Kerswell who runs Arioch Farm in a remote location just outside Brechin. It’s a beautiful part of the world where the only noise is the lowing of cows and occasional hum of farm machinery, but otherwise it’s as isolated as any remote island. 

Paul, who himself has experienced mental health problems, has given over part of his 30 acre holding to a therapeutic regrow project where people with mental health problems are encouraged to maintain an arable patch of land and grow their own crops.

The farm also works with people who have chronic health problems and disabilities as well as those who haven’t been accessing any other forms of support and may have become isolated socially.

It’s up to those who own the plots to grow what they want. Many go for herbs, others root vegetables and there’s lots of flowers too. But there’s also the exotic: a hydroponic area has fig and olive trees growing and Paul is also talking about growing palm trees in the near future. 

“The idea of this project, if you want to call it that, is that nothing is impossible,” he tells me. “I’ve had suicidal people here who have changed their thinking completely and now have faith in themselves just because they’ve seen something live because of their care. The reason: they want to finish what they start. Their small plot of land becomes their world. They look after it like a loved one, a partner. And their lives become transformed.”

As a concept it might be nothing new however Paul’s project is probably the only one of its kind in Scotland. He tells me: “It’s well known connecting with nature in this way can have lots of positive health benefits. For example, ecotherapy can help people manage an existing mental health problem, and could help prevent future periods of ill health, such as an episode of depression. You can use ecotherapy on its own, or do it alongside other treatments such as talking treatments or medication,” he says. 

Paul first realised the transformational qualities of farming when his own mental health became an issue. His dad’s smallholding had been a thriving sheep and dairy farm but became too much for him when his parents died in a train crash in Canada. Having grown up in a farm and with his family gone he experienced depression for the first time.

“At one point I felt had nothing to live for,” he says. “With no parents, no partner, I felt horribly isolated. All I had was the farm. But in the end it saved me.”

For the next two years Paul lost himself in turning a section of the arable land into plots. He’d been attending Angus Support Network, the local self-help forum for people experiencing problems with mental health, and wanted to support others on their path to recovery through the same approach that helped him.  It would also connect him to society and, crucially, with others experiencing the same problems.

Samantha McDougall, chair of Angus Support, says: “We know that gardening makes a huge difference to people with mental health problems – being active outdoors in green spaces has a positive impact on both physical and mental health.

“Paul’s Greenspaces project has been amazing. It’s actually transformed us as an organisation. Before we were mostly just a support network that connected people. Now there’s a physical, tangible element where users of the service can see the fruits of their labours.”

How gardening is good for your mental health

Digging for better mental health

Studies have found that just 30 minutes of gardening can have a positive effect on mental health and it has been argued that if gardening were to be prescribed on the NHS, particularly for mental illness, substantial savings could be made to the economy.

Research found that 88% of people find their mental wellbeing a key benefit of spending time in their garden. Even just spending a short while in the garden before work can help de-stress before the day begins.

Kathryn Rossiter, CEO of Thrive, the UK’s leading charity in the field of disability and gardening, said: “Ask any gardener why they enjoy gardening and time and time again they will say it makes them feel good. 

"We learn new things and develop skills, which can then lead to an increase in confidence and boost self-esteem. Strong social support is important for people with mental ill health, so gardening with organisations like Thrive and being supported by our horticultural therapists is shown to be a cost effective and proven therapy.”

As well as this, gardening is a distraction, it takes the gardener’s mind off troubles as they escape into the task, concentrate on the job in hand, and forget about any worries and concerns outside of that. 

It gives gardeners a sense of purpose - as they strive to avoid their plants wilting and dying - heightening mood, sense of self worth and self-esteem at the same time.

The local council love it too, so much so in February local councillors brought round a visiting delegation of Romanian civil servants who marvelled at the idea and its outcomes.

“The idea is nothing new but because the setting is so rural, people are really impressed when they realise what we’re doing,” said Paul. “It looks like a normal farm otherwise and to all purposes it still is.”

But while Paul says the beauty of the project is that it’s manageable with just 14 people turning over small plots of land, he implores others to follow the example.

“If you look at the statistics, one in four people in Scotland will suffer mental health problems. We need to understand that it’s a fact of life and it needs treated,” he says.

“The NHS can’t cope, nor can medication provide all the answers. So we need wider society to help. Businesses, charities, people. I gave over part of my land and part of my time. It doesn’t stop me living my life. I’m still able to make a living. We all need to be doing more for our community, especially businesses.”

For Peter, the project that saved his life deserves more than isolated success. He’s already been to Germany as part of an international counselling conference raising awareness of ecotherapy and recently travelled to Lithuania, of all places, to show off his success at growing giant chard (above). 

“You have to be careful of terms like ‘lifesaving’ because folk instantly turn off even if it’s true,” he says. “Instead you talk about the more subtle benefits and successes, such as people with depression lowering their medication, or those with anxiety now able to take on part-time work. These are tangible outcomes which people relate to.”

For Paul, Pete and others on the project it’s upwards and onwards. They’ve been making forays into neighbouring Aberdeenshire and are in the “advanced stages” of setting up a similar scheme with a smallholding farmer.

“It takes time and it needs to be done right,” he says. “But the rewards are incredible. And people start to live again.”