Since 1949, the United States has observed May as Mental Health Awareness Month. The Magic Valley Master Gardener Association joins with other local organizations in supporting this period of increased emphasis on protecting and strengthening mental health.
We can approach mental health from either the negative or positive side. On the negative side, we can look at mental illness in its myriad forms, its causes and its treatment. Here gardening activities have demonstrated therapeutic value. Horticultural therapy is being included in the treatment of many forms of mental illness. Clinical evidence shows that gardening activities can help alleviate symptoms of depression, anxiety and alienation. Gardening activities are being used in the treatment of behavioral challenges ranging from drug and alcohol addiction to criminal activity. Horticultural therapy is also helping those suffering from trauma. This includes war veterans, survivors of physical, emotional and sexual abuse, survivors of cancer and other major health challenges, and other populations struggling with PTSD.
In confronting the current global refugee crisis, refugee centers have discovered real value in providing refugees with garden areas where they can successfully grow fruits, vegetables and herbs they associate with their homeland. Those gardening activities coupled with the opportunity to eat familiar foods provide powerful feelings of connectedness, control, usefulness and joy. This can significantly reduce the pain of displacement.
If we approach mental health from the positive side, we ask what such health means. Throughout history, mental health has been associated with feelings of joy, hope, peace and contentment. In all major world religions including Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Confucianism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, gardens are also associated with feelings of peace, contentment and joy. Gardens have also been perennial symbols of hope. As the American actress and avid gardener Audrey Hepburn famously said, “to plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.”
Gardening connects us to other living things. Such interconnectedness leads inexorably to feelings of contentment and inner peace. Experienced gardeners embrace the intricately complex web of life. I am fascinated watching beginning gardeners. They look like warriors. They hate insects. They hate weeds. They buy chemicals to kill everything that might be in their garden except for the few plants they are trying to grow. Experienced gardeners celebrate biodiversity. We intentionally incorporate plants that will attract beneficial insects and pollinators to our gardens. We are loath to disturb the complex system of symbiotic relationships that exist between various life forms in our gardens.
There is much we don’t yet understand, but this much we know: Man has been on this planet for at most a few million years. Plants have been here for several billion years. We are just beginning to unravel some of the secrets of the plant world. We have a pretty good understanding of photosynthesis, the capacity of plants to harness the energy of the sun to create fuel. That amazingly complex process is the key to all life on earth. There are many other secrets we have yet to unlock but we know that nature has great power to teach and to heal. I appreciate the sentiment of the American transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau, who wrote “I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright.”
As the 20th century humanitarian Albert Schweitzer wrote: “Until he extends his circle of compassion to include all living things, man will not himself find peace.” More recently, the great Harvard biologist, Edward O. Wilson, furthered Schweitzer’s ideas by suggesting that reverence for life is embedded in our DNA. He argued that our happiness and contentment is correlated to the amount of contact we have with other living things. He coined the term “biophilia” to capture this idea. The biophilia hypothesis argues that humans possess an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life.
There is growing clinical evidence that feelings of depression, alienation and loneliness are directly tied to the lack of such contact with other living things. Notice how important animal companionship has been throughout human history and why a retiree, living alone, can find joy in caring for a stray cat or even a solitary cactus on a window sill.
On May 4 there will be a Mental Health 5K Run/Walk at 10:00 am at the CSI Expo Center. The event is free and there is no entrance fee. There will also be booths from various organizations with activities for all age groups. We encourage all to take part. While you are there, stop by our Magic Valley Master Gardener Association booth. We will have activities and reading materials on gardening and mental health.