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Saturday, 1 May, 1999, 06:41 GMT 07:41 UK
Gardening aids mentally ill
Garden workers
Gardening can be therapeutic
Gardening not only gives you green fingers, it can also be good for your mind, a study has shown.

A two-year project offering people suffering from severe mental illnesses the opportunity to work on an inner-city allotment has proved so successful that the idea may be extended to other areas of the country, the Royal College of Psychiatrists' journal has reported.

The Fertile Imaginations project was set up by the Ealing, Hammersmith and Fulham Mental Health Trust in London.

Participants enjoyed growing their own vegetables
The aim was to develop work-related and social skills among severely mentally ill people living in the borough.

Although there was a two-year waiting list for allotments, the council allowed the group to bypass this and they were allocated a plot costing 10 per year.

Over the two years, 41 referrals were received and 27 people attended an initial assessment.

Of these, 15 became regular attendees and four have attended for more than 18 months.

Of the regular attendees, nine have schizophrenia and six suffer from depression. Eleven were male.

Two occupational therapists and a support worker worked with the group.

Positive experience

All those who took part in the project said the experience had been helpful.

Not only had they built up social relationships with other members of the group, they had also interacted with other allotment holders, who shared tips, cuttings and conversation.

They also enjoyed the variety of activities, from physical work, abstract thought, planning and clerical tasks.

Experts believe that gardening is an ideal activity for people with mental illness who often have little capacity to accept change in their lives.

They are able to try new things out, identify and build on their particular skills and, by working as part of a team, to become more balanced and flexible.

Participants said they benefited from:

  • Getting out of the house and doing something
  • Meeting people and making friends
  • Being in the open air
  • Learning practical skills
  • Improving self-confidence and concentration

Adapt to community living

John Fieldhouse, an occupational therapist working on the project, said the aim was to help mentally ill people gradually adapt to community living.

He said many people with serious mental illness often found that the stresses caused by their inability to carry out everyday tasks such as problem solving added to their problems.

"The project has helped them to feel that the mental health service is being provided in a more normal setting, not an institutional setting," he said.

"That has reinforced the fact that they are capable of normality, and they have responded to that by feeling that they are more able to reintegrate into the community."

Mr Fieldhouse said some people who have taken part in the project have been able to leave hospital, and others have moved out into the community. However, he stressed that the gardening project was only one small part of their overall care package.

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