Getting Our Hands Dirty to Improve Mental Health
How do you feel when you’re outside in nature? Most of us would say that we feel more relaxed, maybe even calmer. So why not use this kind of therapeutic approach in patient care? Northern Light Acadia Hospital does just that.
The therapy gardens at the hospital came to life about four years ago with each year growing bigger and better than the last. The gardens are cared for by staff and patients who are eager to water, weed, and harvest. “The gardens provide the elements of responsibility and accountability while allowing kids to have the hands on, get-their-hands-dirty experience. We all see the calmness and peacefulness being in the garden gives everyone who visits,” says Christopher McLaughlin, LCSW, associate vice president, Community and Pediatric Services.
Horticulture has many benefits including the idea of environmental therapy. “The gardens are a symbol of growth and life, they give our patients a chance to manage frustration when something may not happen the way they anticipate,” explains Paula Dietrich, OQMHP-C & MHRT-ll, behavior health professional, Pediatric Outpatient Program. “They are also a tool to practice mindfulness, and to find quiet and peace,” she adds.
While there are many mental benefits the gardens provide, there are physical benefits patients are reaping as well. Patients bring home fresh vegetables with them including tomatoes, bell and hot peppers, zucchini, and more—food they may not have access to otherwise.
The Eating Disorder Program has their own garden, that is especially meaningful to patients struggling with their relationship with food. It often makes patients feel more comfortable because they see where their food is coming from. The River of Hope garden also has important meaning and symbolism. When a pediatric patients are ready to be discharged from their program, they pick and paint two rocks. One rock they take home with them as a reminder of all the hard work they have put into their healing, and the second is taken to the River of Hope. Peers and staff gather to express well-wishes, offer advice, encouragement, and then the patient expresses what they have learned and accomplished as they place the rock in the river. “It’s a very powerful process and the feeling of hope is palpable,” explains Shane “Mack” McPherson, psychiatric technician II, Pediatric Day Treatment. “It tends to bring emotion out on the most stalwart of us. I like to tell visitors that each rock represents a life that has been changed for the better.”
“I’ve learned a lot about gardening right alongside the kids, and even from the kids. This summer has been full of teachable moments for our patients and staff. The gardens are a blessing and we have had multiple members from different departments in the hospital take tours and visit. It has brought our already awesome hospital team a bit closer, and that type of culture is passed on to the patients we serve,” says Mack. “We all want to be outside in the fresh air, sunshine, and nature. Some of the best conversations I’ve had this summer have been between me, a patient, and a squash or marigold.”