May is Mental Illness Awareness Month, which is dedicated to raising awareness and breaking down the stigmas for mental health disorders across the Unites States. Approximately one in five adults in the United States, 43.8 million, or 18.5%, experiences a mental illness in a given year and approximately one in five youth aged 13–18 (21.4%) experiences a severe mental health disorder at some point during their lifetime. Mental health disorders range from mood disorders such as depression and bipolar disorders to anxiety disorders, behavior disorders such as ADHD and conduct disorders and psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia. In general treatment consists of individual therapy, group therapy and medication management however more research is being done to introduce new treatments that can be implemented into everyday life. Therapies such as play therapy, equine therapy, yoga therapy and horticulture therapy are lifestyle therapies meaning common everyday activities that are being integrated into therapeutic approaches to help treat mental illnesses.

The American Horticultural Therapy Association (AHTA) as the engagement of a person in gardening and plant-based activities, facilitated by a trained therapist, to achieve specific therapeutic treatment goals, defines horticultural therapy. Since the late 1700’s gardening has been known to have therapeutic value on the mind, as it is known to bring restorative therapeutic properties. Treatment centers in the United States have not yet fully adopted this therapeutic approach however there are some programs that integrate gardening into their daily activities since studies have shown that being in a green space and being outdoors is known to reduce signs and symptoms of depression and anxiety. Therapeutic gardening can be a powerful way to ground psychiatric clients because it puts them in contact with nature and other people and gets their bodies moving. Grounding techniques help people detach from emotional pain by reconnecting with the external world and the present moment. While researchers are still learning exactly how tending plants affects the brain, what is known is that gardening reduces stress by decreasing the production of cortisol. The following are horticultural therapy techniques that have been used in mental health treatment centers.

  • Plant in the client’s room
  • On-ward gardening (individual or in a group)
  • On-site garden
  • Off-site community allotment
  • Volunteer community gardening
  • Paid gardening

Outdoor therapy to fight depression

Studies have shown that being outdoors in nature has therapeutic benefits on mental illness. “Specifically, the study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, found that people who walked for 90 minutes in a natural area, as opposed to participants who walked in a high-traffic urban setting, showed decreased activity in a region of the brain associated with a key factor in depression. ‘These results suggest that accessible natural areas may be vital for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world,’ said co-author Gretchen Daily , the Bing Professor in Environmental Science and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for The Enviroment. ‘Our findings can help inform the growing movement worldwide to make cities more livable, and to make nature more accessible to all who live in them.’”

Alternative therapies such as gardening can be used in combination with more traditional therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy and medication. Each individual reacts differently to treatment and therefore exploring alternative therapies such as gardening, yoga, equine therapy and play therapy can offer another approach to providing stability and strength for an individual who is battling a mental health disorder such as depression or anxiety.