Gardening for mental health

Published: December 13, 2015


The benefits of horticultural therapy

Gardening, in the modern world, has become more than just a hobby. After years of research, experts have determined that growing food, flowers and plants from scratch actually serves as a great form of therapy for people suffering from mental illnesses. It is particularly beneficial for individuals who undergo depression following the death of a family member.

Asma Mirza, a residential client at Karachi-based psychiatric rehabilitation centre, The Recovery House (TRH), shares her experience to elucidate how gardening helped her through depression. “I had always worked with pens and paper before but those became futile,” says Dr Asma. “Touching the soil brought me closer to nature and I began to enjoy gardening immensely. Before my sessions, however, the soil used to remind me of death and the burial of my family members repeatedly.”

According to Zahra Ali, the therapist who worked with Asma, the latter’s improving condition was manifested through her increasing interest in the gardening sessions. “Asma would actually dress up for every session,” says Zahra. Along with her husband, artist and environmentalist Yasir Husain, Zahra has been conducting horticultural therapy at TRH for over a year now and could not be happier with the progress of her patient. Together, they devised a customised therapy course for Asma, according to her medical needs and personal history. “To change her negative perception of soil, we showed her how the seemingly dead earth can also create life and how nature turns death into living things,” explains Zahra.  “I recall one time, while heading to one of the session, Asma paused and took my hand, smiled and thanked me for making soil look so beautiful to her again.”

In a nutshell, horticultural therapy entails bridging the gap between patients and nature, incorporating all five of the human senses. Gardens not only provide relaxation, hope and motivation but also have a healthy effect on the body. Much like in Asma’s case, Zahra and Yasir undertake extensive measures to learn all about a patient and how they can assist them. Psychiatrists and psychologists are often sought to see the world through the patients’ eyes. A customised therapy programme is then developed with regards to the individual goals of each patient. “We once had a patient with extreme anger issues who turned around completely via therapy,” shares Zahra. “Gradually, once he started to observe nature, we encouraged him to focus on the sound of water pouring from a fountain or close his eyes and feel the sun [on his skin].” These simple practices went a long way as the patient took a liking to lounging under the sun, even on hot days, and recovered fully.

Dr Farhana Azim, director at TRH, believes gardening is therapeutic because it helps clients develop a sense of peace and serenity. “There has always been a great link between humans and nature. Therefore, we work on patients’ surroundings. Gardening is all about the environment,” says Dr Farhana. “When it comes to mental health, vocational training is key. Gardening, like cooking, is a mainstay of therapy and the results come almost immediately.” Dr Farhana claims that the gardening sessions are one of the most enjoyed forms of therapy in TRH’s programme, although some clients with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders (OCD) are initially reluctant to get their hands dirty. “But while gardening, clients begin to identify themselves in the living things that pertain to plants and flora. It transmits invisible power and determination to do something,” she adds.

“What happens is that clients without the will to live plant seeds and eventually, come to own and nurture them. This grants them a purpose in their lives,” explains Zahra. “It motivates one to get out of bed and create something beautiful. It grants a sense of responsibility that patients thought they could not handle.” Once a seed sprouts or a flower turn into fruit, patients are appreciated for their achievements. “These little lessons are lessons of life for them.”

According to horticulturalist Tofiq Pasha Mooraj, the benefits of gardening extend beyond mental health: it is a complete exercise. “Working in a garden or anywhere outdoors exposes one to the sun directly which fulfills our need for Vitamin D,” says Tofiq. “It helps distract minds, particularly those with psychiatric illnesses.” In Tofiq’s experience, working together — be it at home or in a rehabilitation centre — also brings the patients closer so that they can not only have fun but also support one another. Zahra agrees and urges other institutions to incorporate gardening therapy into their curriculums.

Aromatherapy through everyday herbs 

According to Zahra Ali, scents play an important part in horticultural therapy. Aromatic herbs and fruits are helpful in soothing our senses and even conveying a feeling. Some of the most popular herbs include:

•  Sweet basil: This herb is ideal for clearing the mind, finding joy, letting go of fear and relieving fatigue when the mind is weak or indecisive. It is also restorative, fortifying and a gentle anti-depressive.

•  Lime and tangerines: The radiant citrus fruits are known for their abilities to uplift one’s mood and revive their spirit. They also help to prevent emotional outbursts, assist in decision-making and bring clarity to the foggy mind.

•  Black pepper: It is psychologically warming and sparks curiosity. Pepper works to build mental endurance, a reconnection with life and encourages one to move on when they are stuck.

•  Cardamom: This spicy condiment strengthens those who feel held back by worries and responsibilities. It lifts the spirit and inspires courage and fortitude.

•  Mint: This leafy green is bold, prompting clarity and alertness. It helps alleviate feelings of inferiority and insecurity as well. 

Ishrat Ansari works on the Karachi desk at The Express Tribune

Published in The Express Tribune, Ms T, December 13th, 2015.

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Reader Comments (1)

  • Stranger
    Dec 15, 2015 - 7:02PM

    True . an int in gardening is a sign of maturity and ‘arrival’ . Recommend

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