Sydenham Garden feels out of step with its surroundings in urban south London. Fringed by houses on most sides, with a school on its doorstep, it is hard to imagine that this small patch of green space is bringing a new lease of life to people struggling with their mental health.
The site, run by the Sydenham Garden charity trust, is just under an acre and boasts a wellbeing centre with gardens, a nature reserve and activity rooms. Therapeutic gardening sessions are held weekly, and are run by experienced staff, who are in turn supported by a team of volunteers.
Christine Dow, 63, was originally referred to the garden by her GP to help overcome her depression. After a year of “green” therapy, she became a volunteer; for the past decade she has spent a few hours every week supporting others referred to the project.
“I’ve lived in Sydenham for 42 years and my husband was born here, but we never realised the garden was here,” she says.
“My GP referred me to the garden years ago when I had depression. It was quite mild, but he thought gardening would be good for me. He was right. I came here for a year and saw all the seasons change,” she recalls. “It’s an oasis of calm. You can come here and, for however long you are here, the outside world stays outside.”
During 2017-2018, Sydenham Garden received 313 patient referrals from health professionals. A typical referral will be between six and 12 months. “I know from our stats that people are going to get as good mental health benefits from us as talking therapies,” says Sydenham Garden director Tom Gallagher. “On top of that, you can also get physical, social and physiological benefits from gardening.”
The majority of people referred will score in the low wellbeing category – according to the Warwick-Edinburgh scale – when starting, but score in the moderate wellbeing category upon completion.
Sydenham Garden is part of a growing movement devoted to increasing the role that gardening and other forms of “green” therapy can play in patient recovery and rehabilitation settings.
It is one of the 1,500 organisations signed up to Growing Health, a national scheme set up seven years ago by the charity Garden Organic and the membership organisation Sustain, the alliance for better food and farming.
“Gardening is not for everyone,” says Maria Devereaux, a project officer at Sustain. “But, increasingly now, we’ve got evidence that even people who aren’t gardeners are able to reap the benefits of being outside, working with nature and all the things that come with it.”
Growing Health’s original remit was to evaluate research into how gardening can impact on health, but it also set out to discover how food growing and other green projects could work more closely with the health service.
From the evidence it collated, it found that simply viewing a green space through a window can help people relax and reduce stress levels. Other evidence confirmed that the physical activity of gardening can improve mental wellbeing.
Growing Health is also keen to spread best practice by publishing case studies illustrating how organisations got to where they are, and how they forged links with other services.
“Collating all that information together [means that] other projects can use it to work with the health service,” says Devereaux.
GPs have been keen for years to adopt various forms of “social prescribing” – referring patients to non-clinical activities in a bid to improve their physical or mental health, says Prof Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of GPs.
“GPs and our teams will see over a million patients today across the country, and for some of them, the underlying reason they are visiting their GP is not principally medical,” she says. But it is only recently that the social prescribing option has been taken more seriously.
“Some people might mock the idea of recommending a gardening group or exercise class to patients, but learning new skills, meeting people and being active can have a really positive impact on a patient’s physical and emotional health and wellbeing,” says Stokes-Lampard.
Devereaux agrees: “It’s an exciting time; there are a lot of gardens out there and it’s about accessing those for people’s wellbeing.
Experience: ‘The real learning is connecting with people’
Becoming a community garden volunteer helped retired dancer Mikloth Bond manage mental illness. Interview by Debbie Andalo
I was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia 40 years ago. Two years ago I decided to look into gardening and get close to nature. That was me saying: “Well, mental health services haven’t worked.” It was time for me to take my own health in hand.
I wanted to connect with nature. I had an instinct that it would help my mental health if I could connect with the seasons, to live in nature’s time. I wanted to spend time with other gardeners, because they are special people.
I started as a volunteer for Spitalfields farm and it really inspired me. The gardeners would sit and talk about the plants and what they were doing and it just motivated me – I thought I’d like some of that.
When its funding ended I came to Core Landscapes, where I am a volunteer support worker twice a week. I support people on the project by just engaging with them, and in that way they support me. I’ve learned about different soils, how to do cuttings and how to plant seeds.
But that isn’t the real learning. The real learning is in connecting with people and becoming confident in yourself and just feeling part of nature; that is the real learning, especially for people with mental health issues.
I enjoy the company and look forward to going every week because it’s a close group, a group that care for one another and help each other and whose expectations of one another are not too great.
When you are gardening you get very involved, because of all the elements and the seasons. You can’t run away from it; you can’t feel superior. And by watching things grow, you realise that it isn’t always the fault of the plant if things don’t work – it’s about the seasons and the weather. It’s the same with mental health issues: it’s not always your fault.
I am also a peer support tutor at the Recovery College in Tower Hamlets, where I co-produce courses for students [recovering from mental ill health] and for health professionals as well.
I am hoping to combine my two roles in the future, as there is talk about co-producing a three-day horticultural course in partnership with Core Landscapes.
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