Judy Wilkinson: Don't forget the ecological dimension of the mental health crisis

Judy Wilkinson, CommonSpace columnist and allotments campaigner, contributes to our week on the mental health crisis. She argues that disconnection from nature breeds alienation, and looks at community growing as a mechanism for re-connecting people to the natural world.

COMMONSPACE editor Ben Wray is absolutely right in saying ‘the mental health crisis is pervasive... poor mental health is a normalised part of modern society’. 

He has identified three key features: technological, economic and ideological, and while I agree with him in his analysis he has not identified the ecological dimension in all this. In 1995, Sarah Conn wrote in ‘Ecopsychology’ that we have cut ourselves off from our connection to the Earth and  we are ‘bleeding at the roots’.

Today many people and groups are trying to address this alienation. There is a profound shift in western thought from the paradigm of ‘the world as a machine’ to ‘the world as a network’ underpinned by the new understanding of life at all levels of living systems - organisms, social systems and ecosystems - through research in physics, neuroscience and neurobiology. Suddenly the parallels between science and the spiritual and philosophical traditions of the third nations and Eastern mystics are coming together, particularly in discussions of deep ecology. This has profound implications for the way mental health is treated. 

On a practical level, re-engaging with the natural world through growing your own food can prevent the onset of mental health problems and enable people over time to recover their equilibrium.  The book ‘Raising Spirits - allotments, wellbeing and community‘ has many stories about this. For example a trainee on the Scottish Association of Mental Health training course said: ‘Redhall isn’t a life placement, it’s a place where you can stop and rest and gather yourself again, learn some skills, appreciate nature, learn that you are still part of the human race and best of all gain ways of coping and nurturing yourself.’

A plotholder in Dundee said that his plot is his ‘bit of Scotland’ and that allotments are a personal therapeutic garden which helped him fight depression: ‘Jam made from my raspberries gives a meaning to life. Living in a tower block is like living in a hencoop and on my plot I have my own space where I can get away from it all and switch off or, if I feel like company there are people from different countries and different backgrounds to talk to.’

‘Men’s Sheds’ is a new development bringing men together to connect, converse and create so helping combat loneliness and isolation. Allotment huts have served this purpose for generations and building them, particularly using recycled material, is a creative activity, available to all.  They provide places with comfy chairs, frying pans and wood stoves where small groups of plot-holders meet all the year round. Quiet spaces, not publicised but an anchor and refuge for many. 

READ MORE: What are the roots of the mental health crisis?

The contribution which gardening can make to the recovery of those suffering from mental health illnesses was recognised in the past when hospitals had large gardens and even farms and orchards, providing fresh food and meaningful activity for the patients. Alas most of these were abandoned in the clinical approach to mental illness but this is changing, albeit slowly and there is an increasing recognition of their benefits. Trellis is the Scottish charity specialising in therapeutic gardening. It supports a network of over 200 therapeutic gardening projects in Scotland, including some in secure units.  Their reports and case studies show how gardening helps people take care of their physical, emotional and social well-being.

What could be done to build on the impact and benefits of community growing? 

In a Review Article Preventative Medicine Reports 5 (2017) ‘Gardening is beneficial for health’ the authors conclude that: ‘Our meta-analysis has provided robust evidence for the positive effects of gardening on health. With an increasing demand for reduction of health care costs worldwide, our findings have important policy implications. The results presented here suggest that gardening can improve physical, psychological, and social health, which can, from a long- term perspective, alleviate and prevent various health issues facing today's society. 

READ MORE – Doaa Shabbir: Forging communities based on togetherness is the solution to our loneliness epidemic

‘We therefore suggest that government and health organisations should consider gardening as a beneficial health intervention and encourage people to participate in regular exercise in gardens. To do so, policy makers need to increase people's opportunity and motivation to engage with gardening activities. The former requires enough spaces where people can enjoy gardening, and the latter needs the various advantages of gardening to be made apparent to a broad audience. .... we believe that such actions and policies would at the same time contribute greatly to redressing health inequalities.’

In Part 9 Allotments of the Community Empowerment Scotland Act, the Scottish Government has recognised the multiple benefits of allotments. The recently published ‘Guidance For Local Authorities Section 119 Duty to Prepare Food-Growing Strategy’ states: ‘Over the next five years we encourage local authorities, through their food-growing strategies, to achieve the following key goals which will meet a number of National Outcomes and National Indicators and UN Sustainable Development Goals: 

‘Local authorities will underpin the National Outcome “We are healthy and active” by: 

 • ‘Taking steps to make food-growing opportunities available to all residents of Scotland to improve their health and wellbeing and reduce health inequalities; 

READ MORE: Older people and mental health: Is 'tackling loneliness' enough?

 • ‘Helping to alleviate food poverty and raising awareness about the benefits of food-growing to mental and physical well-being through public engagement and encouraging uptake of food- growing opportunities.” 

‘Community growing can lower stress levels, offer mental health benefits and a supportive social environment, where growers view the growing space as a “safe” space where they can relax and unwind from the stresses of other parts of their lives.’

The opportunity is there to be grasped by all those engaged with health, place, land and how we live to ensure that everyone has access to a patch of earth they can care for and by which they are nourished in turn. 

Working together we can make this change happen. 

Picture courtesy of Summer in the City

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