• The theme of Mental Health Awareness Week 2021 is nature

  • Matt King, CEO of mental health charity Trust Links, shares how therapeutic gardening helps his community flourish

Having endured a year like no other, the vast majority of us are looking forward to regaining a little normality; being able to see friends and family, get out and about and enjoy life as we knew it. However, as a direct result of the pandemic, many people have been left feeling fragile and vulnerable. The NHS report that 1 in 4 adults experience mental illness with many more cases going unreported. It’s clear that our society is struggling and we're in desperate need of accessible solutions to the mental health crises we're facing.

Throughout the pandemic, many of us turned to nature as a source of solace and comfort. Through walking, gardening and more, nature became, in many ways, a positive outlet for our emotions. Now, as restrictions ease and we look forward to a brighter future, it’s important that we remember nature and how powerfully it can support our mental health, including therapeutic gardening specifically; its benefits are countless and something we should all continue to enjoy.

Therapeutic gardening is an amazing way for anyone to improve their mental health; through simply connecting with nature our concerns can be eased, self-confidence reignited, and positivity heightened. Whether you’re an avid gardening lover or entirely new to the world of gardening, it’s important that you’re aware of these advantages and how nature can enhance your wellbeing.

Trust Links, an Essex-based mental health and wellbeing charity, has witnessed the exceptional benefits of therapeutic gardening first-hand; their Growing Together project is in its 20th year. The gardens in Westcliff, Rochford, Shoeburyness and Thundersley inspire positive change through outdoor gardening activities, helping people struggling with their mental wellbeing to feel more content and connected. Here, Matt King, Trust Links’ CEO, shares his expertise, discussing both how and why therapeutic gardening can support and enrich our mental health in an effort to do just that.

Therapeutic gardening comes as a welcome distraction

‘Throughout the past year, many of us have come to rely on nature more than ever before; we now appreciate long afternoon walks and morning runs, with these nature-driven activities helping to alleviate our uncertainty and angst. As such, more people have realised the many benefits to connecting with nature and gardening specifically. Enjoying the fresh air can have a life-changing effect on your mental health, helping you to feel calmer and more connected with what’s really important. Meanwhile, gardening reduces chronic stress, improves concentration and brings your attention onto your surroundings, providing much needed reprieve from stressful thoughts. Instead of focusing on what’s causing you stress, you can celebrate horticultural achievements whilst creating a haven within your own garden.

Therapeutic gardening can very quickly rejuvenate and refresh your mindset, making it an ideal hobby and a welcome distraction if you’re finding that life is becoming a little overwhelming. We see this in the people we help; our outdoor gardening activities leave members feeling more positive.

We have a Growing Together member Crystal, 32, who between the ages of 18 and 25 had several prison sentences and stays at secure units because of addiction issues. Crystal also suffers from bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder and was sectioned for 15 months after trying to take her own life. Now, Crystal has not been back to prison for eight years and is recovering from her substance abuse. Having attended Growing Together for nearly 3 years now speaks passionately about how important coming to the gardens has been for her. ‘It went from like a hobby to something I wanted to learn, to the possibility of doing it as a job in the future. Once I started coming and realising how much it was helping with my mental health that’s when I started wanting to learn more about it. I’d definitely say its improved my mental health and given me something that I really enjoy doing and feel good at. ‘I recommend this place to a lot of people, even if you’re not into gardening, it grows on you.. hence Growing Together!’

Gardening reduces chronic stress

‘Stress can be incredibly detrimental to your wellbeing, nevertheless it’s something that most of us have experienced at some point in our lives and will almost certainly encounter again. Therefore, having a reliable outlet for stress is incredibly important; these emotions can quite quickly unravel and manifest, meaning we must understand how to positively overcome them and maintain a positive mindset.

Gardens are peaceful spaces with restorative qualities that can benefit individuals suffering from extensive stress in an abundance of ways. The wonderful sensory qualities of a garden provide us with a feeling of escapism, whilst small horticultural achievements instil a sense of productiveness and accomplishment for example. Therapeutic gardening has a well-rounded calming effect, something that anyone experiencing stress will be seeking; it supports our psychological, social and physical needs, which is why it lies at the core of our services as a charity. We see an incredible shift in our members after working alongside their peers in our gardens. A research study conducted by Prof Jules Pretty and Dr Jo Barton of the University of Essex (2020) examined the effectiveness of Growing Together as a nature based mental health intervention. They measured the change in life satisfaction and happiness scores for our members and found that attending Growing Together increased scores by 1 point; an increase so large it is greater than the effect from having a baby or getting married. Additionally, this 1 point increase puts our members above the national average. This shows the real-world power that gardening can have on our mental health. 

Confidence and community

‘Not only does therapeutic gardening improve your mood, it also encourages you to take essential time out from your daily hustle and bustle. Sometimes, a busy routine can be overwhelming, but putting your needs first and focusing on what you enjoy can help you to feel more relaxed. By taking on gardening as a hobby, you can also easily make new connections and find others on the same journey; therefore, you’ll not only enhance your own confidence as you focus on a stress-reducing activity, you’ll meet like-minded people and develop an invaluable support system, lessening feelings of social isolation in turn. We witness the power of community time and time again at our Growing Together projects; members that once felt very isolated and lonely, with nowhere to meet people, suddenly experience togetherness. This is incredibly heart-warming and watching friendships blossom because of therapeutic gardening certainly proves just how important it is for our mental health.’

Motivation and achievement 

‘Gardens are a relaxing place to find yourself in, whilst therapeutic gardening allows you to reach personal milestones and goals – something which is particularly satisfying. There’s nothing quite like seeing the fruits of your labour bloom in one very special and personal place. Similarly, nurturing something else, including flowers and plants, can actually help you take better care of yourself, allowing you to hone into your own wellbeing. Measurable results guarantee a boost in confidence and self-esteem, which consequently motivates us to accomplish even more. At Trust Links, people typically come to us with low self-esteem, they don’t want to set goals and certainly don’t think they’ll be able to fulfil them. However, therapeutic gardening changes their mindsets and, in time, they develop a more confident, life-affirming perspective. Sometimes taking little steps leads to huge leaps.’

Although everyone has different reasons for wanting to connect with nature, getting in touch with our environment is fundamental to our wellbeing. Enjoying the peace that therapeutic gardening brings is undoubtedly a step towards a more tranquil mind.’

Further reading

How to connect with the nature around you

Finding lessons and hope in nature

Why being outside is so good for mental health

Therapeutic landscapes: how natural environments boost wellbeing

6 ways wild swimming can improve your mental health