The view from the olive tree: ecotherapy for better mental health

The dark summer

This summer I’ve discovered how a family going through emotional stress can be healed by their garden space. I need to be matter-of-fact about the next bit as it is not the focus of this piece but is necessary for the overall content and is the reason this blog has been quiet for a while (i.e. this is tough for me to write). Early in the summer, I miscarried at 10 weeks pregnant and then my son had repeated monthly hospital visits for his ongoing health condition. It was a hard summer: grief, sadness, guilt, worry, sleep deprivation, and ill-health all took their toll.  My mental health suffered and I experienced depression for the first time in years, although mercifully it was not as bad or as prolonged as I anticipated given what we were going through. With the love, support, and nurture of close family and friends, we came back to ourselves, carrying on as we simply had to do. There was no other choice. Thankfully, our garden has been an uplifting contant for my husband, son and I throughout what I think of currently as the darkest summer. The role our garden played in our recovery is akin to that of a dear friend – I don’t think we would be in such good shape now if we hadn’t had it there for us. That is the focus of this post, considering ecotherapy for better mental health.

We’d been encouraging wildlife into the garden over Winter and Spring (thanks to the fantastic birdfeeder Haith’s kindly gifted to us – see review coming soon). We couldn’t yet add plants as we planned to have the whole garden landscaped: lawn leveled, retaining walls with toddler-proof screening, plus a series of raised beds. This glorious work took place in late Spring, so it was as if the space was prepared for us, ready for us to fall into when the tough times arrived.

 

That’s essentially what we did. Where previously we had an extended building site in the garden, utterly unsafe for an increasingly independent and strong-willed toddler, we now had a sanctuary of green that was safe and welcoming. The planting came later in the summer; despite the empty beds, we still had my beloved roses, the fig, olive and apricot trees, plus I got stuck into growing some pumpkins – great for covering up unprepared beds it turns out! We would play football together, lie on the soft new grass and watch the clouds scud by, splash in the paddling pool on those balmy days, and water everything in sight (Archie’s chief interest and therefore responsibility!). I’d once considered taking the olive tree out but after some hefty pruning to open up the leaf ball, it suddenly became a beautiful and necessary part of the garden ‘room’. I recall one warm early evening sat on the new raised bed wall with my back pressed firmly against its trunk, so grateful for the support and shelter it was giving me. I envisioned the roots spread deep beneath me and the branches reaching up and over me, as if drawing me into its protection. That moment gave me a sense of connection to the natural world around me and comforting spiritual reassurance. I didn’t feel quite so alone, I could sense the bigger picture of my life returning.

Planting the beds was my favorite part, one I planned and anticipated for weeks. We had time off and, mercifully, some good weather. I’m no professional garden designer but planning and buying plants for a bed is possibly one of my favorite things to do. I thought about interest throughout the seasons, scent, flower and foliage colour, pollinators, safety for toddlers, and generally what I found beautiful. I’d also nurtured a passionflower from seed so I planned carefully where this little baby of mine would go. I’d also been given a beautiful sculpture of the Buddha to place somewhere that could be seen from both house and garden; a nice reminder to be mindful of the here and now, and all the wonderful things we have to be grateful for despite the challenges that life sometimes lays at our feet.

Almost every day we would be out there as a family, pottering, playing, and reconnecting with the simple joy of life, slowly releasing sadness, fear, bitterness and the toxic physical effects of those emotions. The garden helped me reconnect with my heart and trust that all would be well again, in time.

Ecotherapy for better mental health

It is well known that gardening can improve mental health, particularly depression and anxiety. Recently, GPs in Shetland have been enabled to prescribe ‘nature prescriptions’ to help reduce anxiety, blood pressure, and increase happiness. According to the mental health charity Mind, ecotherapy is a range of nature-based activities that can support your mental wellbeing. See their helpful leaflet here. Ecotherapy can take so many different forms – it’s simply about finding ways that work for you to have some contact and interaction with natural things. Like nurturing a garden, a window box, or even some nice house plants. Doing a nature craft workshop, collecting some leaves, making a collage. Whatever you have the space and time for. Start small and work up – it can be so satisfying to see how far you’ve come. It is something you can do on your own, with family or friends, or with a local community group. Check out the following links if you would like to learn more about the beneficial effects of gardening and/or ecotherapy.

Gardening as a mental health intervention: a review (Clatworthy et al., 2013) – key findings include that gardening interventions significantly reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety, and significantly increased self-esteem and attentional capacity.

RSPB article: Nature being prescribed to help health and wellbeing also reported in The Guardian (2018)

Mind: Nature and mental health (2015)

30 Days Wild: Days 21 to 30 – baby in hospital

Absence

It has been along time since I last posted, I have missed writing. However, as you’ll see below, we have had a bit of a tough time and frankly, I have prioritised spending time with our little boy Archie. Sometimes, time and love are the only things you can focus on.

In hospital

It’s summer time and warm so you don’t expect to catch colds, let alone end up with baby in hospital with a cold for the third time in three months. Archie got bronchiolitis for the third time from a common cold and needed hospitalization for the third time. Anyone who has been in hospital even once with baby will know how harrowing it can be and this being the third time Jon and I felt ourselves being stretched thin emotionally. However, having been there before we were more prepared: we knew when to go, what to pack, and to an extent, what we should expect. Most importantly, we now knew how we had to care for ourselves during the experience so we could be our best for poor little Archie.

Archie in hospital
Archie in Bristol Children’s Hospital

Sharing the load

Last time we were in hospital for five nights. I stayed with Archie for the first four nights but I was so obliterated by lack of sleep and stress that when we knew we’d be in a fifth, Jon stayed with him and I went home to get some reasonable rest. This time we agreed we’d alternate staying in with him so we both could remain as strong as possible. This worked really well and I think helped show Archie that both his parents are there for him always, and reinforced that Daddy can provide snuggly comfort similar to Mummy, which is never a bad thing.

Cowboy Archie in hospital
He wears it well…

My mum came up to stay with us from Cornwall as soon as she knew Archie was ill which really helped me stay strong and provided some much needed practical assistance with things like meals. Being in hospital can prove to be extremely expensive when you’re only able to buy yourself ready meals. Her being with us also gave me more of a reason to get out and get fresh air. This, I have discovered, is SO INCREDIBLY important for my mental wellbeing when in hospital. Being part of 30 Days Wild, I did my best to seek out any form of nature that I could focus on and connect with, however seemingly insignificant, as I knew that it WOULD help me stay strong for my baby boy. This was my ultimate goal.

St. James Park is a small urban park in the center of the city. I'd walked past it many times yet I don't recall ever having visited. It gave us some much-needed green respite from the endless grey and clamour of hospital and city.
St. James Park is a small urban park in the center of the city. I’d walked past it many times yet I don’t recall ever having visited. It gave us some much-needed green respite from the endless grey and clamour of hospital and city.
A beautiful patch of midsummer colour outside St. James' Priory refreshes the eye of the passerby, if they should look up.
A beautiful patch of midsummer colour outside St. James’ Priory refreshes the eye of the passerby, if they should look up.

The 30 Days Wild Community

The day we were in A&E when we first arrived at the hospital with Archie, I went out to get a breath and phone my mum. In the midst of the concrete cloisters of the hospital ambulance bays I found a couple of thin trees and some bamboo so I attached myself to them, trying to block out the sense of grey and crisis around me. I took a picture and added it to the 30 Days Wild Facebook group that I’d joined, writing a little about what was going on. Over the course of the next few days, we were utterly overwhelmed by the support, and kindness expressed by so many members of that group. So many similar stories of babies ill with this same condition, parents offering strength and understanding; so many well wishes for a speedy recovery. Quite simply so much LOVE. I’m so glad I joined that group as it gave me such a sense of solidarity and support during that awful time. If 30 Days Wild attracts a kind and caring character of person, they seem to be concentrated within that group.

My post to the 30 Days Wild FaceBook page, with the amazing response from that community.
My post to the 30 Days Wild FaceBook page, with the amazing response from that community.

30 Days Wild: looking back

Throughout the month of June, I consciously endevoured to get a daily fix of nature: I enjoyed my Random Acts of Wildness, I’m certain they benefitted me physically (lots of walking!).  See my other accounts here, here, and here. I’m also certain they benefitted me mentally at least in the short term: some days you don’t feel like doing anything, whether that’s because of sleep deprivation, a low mood, or just sheer laziness! But whenever I had to MAKE myself do something, i.e. I was not in my (I was going to say usual but more honestly I’m going to say) preferred light mood, I felt refreshed, happier and more energised afterwards. During the two dark stints we were with baby in hospital in June, I particularly noticed how connecting to nature helped me be more rational and balanced amid the torturous emotional heights of those times. Thanks to 30 Days Wild, I know that (1) regular, even if not always daily, nature fixes make me feel better and keep me fitter, (2) even a few short minutes engaging with nature will make a noticeable positive impact on my wellbeing.

365 Days Wild

So, I WILL be continuing with the conscious nature connection ethos that 30 Days Wild has instilled in me – 365 Days Wild! For instance, as I write this, it is 6.52am and I am sitting in my parents’ lounge looking out the patio windows over their beautiful garden. There are so many birds flitting hither and thither within the trees and to the bird feeders; I am consciously looking at the birds, noticing their species (if I know it), their behaviour (are they feeding, washing, preening), and the patterns of their movements. Before 30 Days Wild, I may have similarly enjoyed the scene but I would not have necessarily paid such close attention to the finer details. This way, the habits I cultivated during 30 Days Wild are now helping me to stay connected to nature, stay wild and bring nature that bit further in my daily life.

How did you find 30 Days Wild? Have you noticed an impact on your physical and mental health? What did you enjoy the most? Stay wild, people!