GARDENING is highly therapeutic and can bring meaning and belonging to people who suffer from mental ill-health, the Bishop of Carlisle, the Rt Revd James Newcome, said at Lambeth Palace on Wednesday.
He was speaking at the start of Green Health Live 2 — a day conference that focused on the health benefits of green spaces and gardening, particularly within a parish and a chaplaincy.
The conference — which took place on World Environment Day — was organised jointly by the Conservation Foundation, the Guild of Health and St Raphael, and the Church Times. It was attended by, among others, chaplains, public-health experts, and healthcare professionals.
It came after the inaugural Church Times Green Health Awards last year (News, 5 October 2018).
The conference focused on the mental-health benefits of gardening, and explored ways in which churches could make use of their green spaces to help people who suffer from mental ill-health.
“The evidence shows that, where people with issues of mental health and loneliness are involved in gardening, the health outcomes are very impressive,” said Bishop Newcome, who is the Church’s lead bishop on health. “It is highly therapeutic.
“Our overall aim is that churches should be able to take little bits of land that they have around their church building and transform them, through the efforts of people in the community, into something beautiful. The benefits for people involved are that they discover meaning and belonging.”
Bishop Newcome and some conference delegates had begun the day gardening in the Lambeth Palace garden, under the supervision of the Palace’s head gardener.
Professor Jim McManus, director of public health for Hertfordshire County Council, and president of the Guild of Health and St Raphael, spoke on mental health in the parish.
There was a mental-health “epidemic” in society, he said. Mental illness accounted for 23 per cent of ill-health but attracted only ten per cent of the health budget. Mental ill-health could reduce life expectancy by as much as 25 years — the same as smoking — and was most prevalent among people who lived in poverty.
Christians, he said, were “not called to replicate what psychiatrists and psychologists do”, but “to incarnate a place of human flourishing in our churches”. This could involve “turning the green space at the back of church into somewhere people can go and be quiet”.
Professor McManus continued: “The NHS cannot deliver a healthy society; all it can do is deliver a society that is a bit less broken than it is now. We have to change and get upstream. The Church is the place that can get upstream more than anybody else, because we can do the simple things, like link people with mental-health problems into gardening.”
geoff crawfordThe Revd Jonathan Aitken addresses Green Health Live 2
The conference heard three personal accounts of the mental-health benefits of gardening.
The first was from the Revd Jonathan Aitken, a former Cabinet minister, who served a prison sentence for perjury and is now a prison chaplain.
Working in the gardens during a stay at HMP Standford Hill on the Isle of Sheppey, in Kent, he had witnessed prisoners who had problems with stress and anger calming down when gardening. “The work gave them purpose; they were part of a community.”
Every prison governor should ask what space could be found on his or her prison estate for gardening and growing fruit and vegetables, he said.
Gardening was also an ideal occupation for former prisoners, who often worried about what to do with their lives after release.
Rachel Kelly, the author of the Black Rainbow: How words healed me: my journey through depression (Yellow Kite), a Sunday Times bestseller, spoke of two key episodes of anxiety and depression in the late 1990s, when she was working as a journalist and raising young children. Gardening “was a key part of my recovery”, she said. “Gardening was my friend.”
She attributed the therapeutic power of gardening to three key factors. First, “it gives you a sense of agency: there is no one to stop you doing it; you don’t have to wait for an appointment. Gardening is stable and manageable. There is such a sense of achievement and that you have made a difference. . . That might be your only achievement that day, but it really matters.”
Second, many people that she had spoken to who suffered from anxiety and depression lived lives that were “a departure from the life our ancestors lived”, who spent much more time outside with nature. Many people today “spend all day indoors, in artificial light, in meetings. . . [They are] not in touch with the natural world. . .
“Gardening brings us back to that fundamental connection, and what it means to be human”.
Third, it was important to remember that “mental and physical health are not just connected, but one and the same. Gardening embodies the connection between mind and body.”geoff crawfordRachel Kelly speaks at Green Health Live 2
The third personal account was given by Professor Harriet Gross, co-director of the Centre for Culture and Creativity at the University of Lincoln. While she had not been directly affected by mental illness, she spoke of academic research that she had carried out, based on interviews with gardeners.
Gardening was, for many, a means of expressing identity and of having control. It also “provides escape from something and an escape to something”.
“More gardeners say that their garden is their salvation and their garden keeps them sane.”
The conference also heard from Dr Geraldine Brown, a Research Fellow at Coventry University, about research that she had carried out, titled, “Land-based interventions with marginalised and/or vulnerable communities”.
The projects that she examined were: Unlocking Nature, led by the Conservation Foundation; the London Food Poverty Project, led by Garden Organic; and Master Gardener programme, also led by Garden Organic.
Again, the evidence was clear: working in gardens and green spaces increased self-esteem, as people learnt new skills.geoff crawfordDr Geraldine Brown
Next, two practical examples of how churches have used green spaces were given.
The first was St Paul’s, Camden Square, which comes under the Old St Pancras Team Ministry, which was the overall winner of the Church Times Green Health Awards last year.
The Team Rector, Fr James Elston, spoke of the fruitful partnership that the church had formed with community gardeners. Two of those volunteers, Ben Ledden and Catherine Tidnam, spoke of how the award last year had given them the confidence to develop their vision further.
Many who attend weekly sessions at the garden come from St Pancras Hospital near by, which cares for mostly elderly and psychiatric patients. The psychology lead for rehabilitation at St Pancras Hospital, Tilly Williams, who worked with St Paul’s in developing the garden, said that most patients who used the garden had a diagnosis of schizophrenia, limited educational and occupational histories, and very limited social networks. “The opportunity to meet people who tend the gardens is a real benefit,” she said.
Another practical example was provided by Dr Nigel and Jane Howard, from St Pol de Léon’s, Cornwall, where a “Quiet Places Garden” has been cultivated on land that used to be a graveyard. “It is a thin place where heaven and earth are close together,” Mrs Howard said. The garden was visited by groups of people with dementia and various mental disabilities, as well as groups of children.
Towards the end of the conference, the Revd Dr Gillian Straine, director of the Guild of Health and St Raphael, spoke about Healthy Healing Hubs, which, she said, could be ideally suited to co-ordinating the Church’s healing work. “We hear from churches that they want to care for the community around them, and there is so much need.”
David Shreeve, executive director of the Conservation Foundation, and environmental adviser to the Archbishops’ Council, said on Friday: “There is already a good deal of therapeutic gardening going on. The great thing about Green Health is that we are bringing together people who are not just interested but believe passionately in the issue. But there is a huge amount more that could happen. This is a fantastic opportunity for the Church and faith groups to really have a positive effect on their local communities.”
Download a free resource: Green Health: using church space for therapeutic gardening