The American Psychiatric Association recently approached the subject in an article called “Healing the Mind With Nature: Another Tool for Psychiatry” published in their May 3rd 2017 online edition of Psychiatric News.

The article cited one practicing psychiatrist who gave up his thriving psychiatric practice and academic career to explore eco-therapy (also known as green or nature therapy). [1]

It also cited a study done in the University of Essex in the United Kingdom in 2007 in which “researchers reported that a walk in the country reduced depression in 71% of the participants. As little as five minutes a day in a natural setting, whether walking in a park or gardening in the backyard, improved mood, self-esteem, and motivation.” [2]

A further examination of green therapy reveals that these common sense techniques are much more than just “another tool for psychiatry” to use along with doses of psychiatric drugs.

These green therapies can eliminate the need for psychiatric drugs and their deadly side effects and actually help a person regain emotional and physical health and become a happy person, capable of doing productive work and becoming involved in positive relationships with family and community.

The British mental health organization called Mind published a 36 page report on the research done at the University of Essex. The details of the report provide even more evidence that something as simple as walks in the woods or gardening can bring relief to those struggling with depression and other mental conditions – all done without the use of dangerous psychiatric drugs.

Mind has 200 local groups in various spots in England which the University had access to in its research.

Impressive Statistics Compared to Psychiatry Drugs

In one study they surveyed 108 people involved in green exercise activities including gardening projects (52%), walking groups (37%), conservation work (7%), running (3%), and cycling groups (1%).  They found:

  • 90% of people who took part in Mind green exercise activities said that the combination of nature and exercise is most important in determining how they feel.
  • 94% of people commented that green exercise activities had benefited their mental health. Some of their comments included:

“I feel better about myself and have a sense of achievement.”

“I am more relaxed, have better focus of mind, greater coordination and greater self-esteem.”

“It improves my depression, helps me be more motivated and gives me satisfaction in doing things. Since starting the project I have been able to improve on my quality of life. Coming here has helped me overcome most of my problems.” [3]

In a second study they looked at what changes in self-esteem, mood and enjoyment occurred while walking in 2 different environments.

They compared the results of walking in Belhus Woods Country Park in Essex, which has a varied landscape of woodlands, grasslands and lakes to the results of walking around a shopping centre in Essex. They found:

Self-esteem

  • 90% of respondents had increased self-esteem after the green walk compared to 44% of people who experienced reduced levels of self-esteem following the indoor shopping centre walk.

Mood

  • 71% of respondents reported decreased levels of depression following the green walk while feelings of depression increased for 22% of people following the indoor shopping centre walk. (33% expressed no change during the indoor walk)

Anger

  • 53% of respondents said feelings of anger decreased after the green walk, but after the equivalent walk indoors, feelings of anger had only decreased for 33%, and 45% experienced no change.

Tension

  • 71% of participants stated that they felt less tense after the green walk and no one reported any increased levels of tension. 50% said their feelings of tension had increased after the shopping centre walk.

Mood

  • 88% of people saw an overall improvement in mood after the green walk. The shopping centre walk left 44.5% of people in a worse mood, 11% showed no change in mood and 44.5% had an improvement in their overall mood. [4]

The Mind report also pointed out 2 earlier validations of exercise as a replacement for medication.

“Research has demonstrated that a supervised programme of exercise can be equally as effective as antidepressants in treating mild to moderate depression” (Halliwell, 2005; Richardson et al., 2005). [5]

A report by the Chief Medical Officer stated: “physical activity is effective in the treatment of clinical depression and can be as successful as psychotherapy or medication, particularly in the longer term.” (Department of Health, 2004). [6]

Even a representation of the outdoors helps the well-being of mental patients.

“A study in a Swedish psychiatric hospital looked at the amount of vandalism to paintings on walls over a 15-year period. It found that damage was only ever inflicted on abstract paintings. There were no recorded attacks on landscape paintings.” [7]

The University of Essex research has tested more than 3,000 people over the years and has identified three key benefits from green exercise such as walking, gardening, cycling, horse riding, fishing, canal boating and conservation activities:

  • It improves psychological well-being by enhancing mood and self-esteem, while reducing feelings of anger, confusion, depression and tension
  • It has a wide range of physical health benefits
  • It facilitates social networking and connectivity

Patients Describe Their Success with Green Therapies

The words of participants in these programs tell the beneficial story even better than the statistics do.

Almost 20 years ago Ron O’Regan was suffering from agoraphobia , a fear of wide, open spaces. He found it difficult to leave his front door. Using the Mind garden project, he recovered and is now helping others to do the same

Ron said, “When I moved to a house that had a garden, I decided to use this as a training ground to help me tackle my problems. I set myself a target of spending a period of time each day in the garden to get used to being outdoors.

“Whenever I had feelings of anxiety I would go out into my greenhouse rather than stay inside. Gradually, I built up the confidence to go down the street until I was able to spend more time outside.” [8]

Tony Barrell is one of the people helped by Ron. He states, “In September 1997, I was forced to give up employment and all other social networks as I was suffering from an anxiety disorder coupled with depression. Over the following two or three years I was prescribed various antidepressant drugs by different consultant psychiatrists, none of which helped with my increasing mental health problems.

“Eventually in 2003, it was suggested I attend Thurrock (a place in the county of Essex) Mind’s garden project. While the mere thought of it was frightening, I decided to give it a try. The first thing that struck me about the manager, Ron, was the way that he seemed to have time for me and a genuine interest in my problems. This was something that I had never experienced with the statutory services (services provided by the National Health Services) and for the first time in years I felt that I was treated as an equal citizen.

“I began attending just half a day a week. I can’t pretend that this was easy for me but after just a few months I started to attend once a week. During this time Ron would offer me help and advice on the ways that I could deal with my ongoing mental health problems. Working in a safe environment, free from stigma, my confidence slowly began to grow.

“During 2005, I was able to attend Mind’s six-week volunteering course and I am now a volunteer with both the advocacy and befriending services. I have also recently completed an Open University course. I feel that all these positive steps have built my confidence and self-esteem.” [9]

Another success is David Digby. For 16 years David needed a family member with him to go outside. In April 2005, his occupational therapist referred him to the garden project.

“When I first started to visit the project I went for just half a day a week and my occupational therapist had to attend with me. Working in the garden project was a great boost to my confidence and gradually I started to go on my own but with my parents picking me up at the end of the day.

“By September, Ron asked if I would like to join some of the other group members selling plants at a local show. I was in two minds because I did not wish to let anyone down so I said that providing my dad could pick me up at lunchtime I would attend. On the day, I was feeling so good that I decided to stay the whole day.”

Within a month David was doing so well he began a City and Guilds program (a vocational education organization in the United Kingdom) to qualify him in gardening so that upon graduation he can get employment for pay working in the community.

“I have come a long way since I first joined the garden project. I am now passing on my knowledge to others and this is giving me added confidence.”  [10]

Using Green Care Agriculture to Improve Mental Health

Britain is also using green care in agriculture, also known as “care farming”. It has been defined as the use of farms and agricultural landscapes to promote mental and physical health.

In other European countries other names are used including “farming for health”, “care farming” and “social farming”. There are several hundred green care farms in Norway, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Austria, Belgium and Slovenia.

The Mind report describes how it works.

“Farms are tied to local social and health services, and are a key component of care in the community in some European countries. Someone visiting a doctor or in a psychiatric hospital or with high social care needs may be referred to a ‘care farm’ to work for a particular period of time (i.e., one day a week, or for a continuous period of a number of weeks).

“Participation is optional and farmers are paid for providing a health service. This helps maintain the economic viability of their farms – they benefit from the additional labour and can sell the agricultural produce.

“Green farming projects in Europe include people experiencing mild to moderate depression and people in mental health wards, as well as people with learning disabilities, people with a history of drug problems, disaffected young people and elderly people with mental and physical health problems.” [11]

Psychiatry Lags Far Behind

Rather than embrace these new proven safe and inexpensive techniques, psychiatry continues to hold onto its highly profitable approach to mental health – drugging the patient.

Some psychiatric facilities do have hospital gardens now but they use them incorrectly.

Since psychiatric treatments are based on punishing bad patient behavior using drugs or shock, their use of the gardens reflect this attitude.

One respondent stated “staff used trips to the garden as a reward and withheld them as a punishment.” [12] Of course this runs counter to the policies of the National Health Service in Britain whose guidelines recognize that something as simple as access to visit a garden helps calm patients.

These simple discoveries by people who truly care about the patients need to be widely promoted.

[1] http://psychnews.psychiatryonline.org/doi/full/10.1176/appi.pn.2017.4b19

[2] Ibid

[3] https://www.mind.org.uk/media/273470/ecotherapy.pdf

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid