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Gardening Is Better Than Antidepressants for Some Mentally Ill Patients

UK eco-therapy program MindFood uses the growing and selling of produce and other foods to help residents recover from and cope with severe mental illness.
February 27, 2015, 10:21pm

Chances are, you haven't heard of care farming. Though it's part of a slow-growing movement in the UK, the idea of eco-therapy or eco-rehabilitation is just beginning to flourish across the globe. From the historical Gould Farm—America's oldest therapeutic community—to San Patrignano in Italy, a drug rehabilitation centre that nurtures the culinary talents of its residents, it's clear that we've begun to look outside of traditional methods of care.

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Based on a sensory market garden in Ealing, the UK program MindFood is unlikely to be similar to any farm you've visited before. MindFood operates on the basis that non-drug-based or therapeutic intervention can substantially reduce the amount of mental distress people suffer. It provides a safe, nurturing, and non-institutional environment for those coping with mental health issues—from schizophrenia, to depression, to bipolar disorder and more.

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Ciaran Biggins, MindFood's founder, tells me that while traditional methods of drug or psychological therapy will always have their place in society, there are just some things they can't accomplish. MindFood works with its residents in order to help them recover and—most importantly, as Biggins stresses—go on to achieve their full potential, all through the growing and selling of food.

Biggins started the farm, something he refers to as a powerful social enterprise, almost three years ago after realising just how many people with mental health issues had been sidelined by society. Almost all of Biggin's residents are in the 'system'; already seeking a traditional form of therapy recommended by their doctors. These are the people who need MindFood and the care-farming concept the most.

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Biggins is under no disillusion; he—and others helming projects like this—is aware that traditional forms of therapy are incredibly important to all his residents, though he is adamant they are lacking somewhat. "traditional forms of medication treat the symptoms, yes," he tells me, "but they don't deal with the extra social implications that occur because of them."

The argument goes that people with these experiences should be given the opportunity to engage in therapeutic activities such as growing and selling food either in place of, or in addition to, the more traditional methods of care available, and with the success of MindFood, he makes a strong case.

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Last year alone, Biggins welcomed more than 70 people into MindFood's various schemes; some for the eight-week introductory program, others for the whole year who went on to join the Grow To Sell program which sees residents growing, as Biggins has aptly dubbed, 'Good Mood Food'.

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Residents plant, nurture, grow, and pick an array of vegetables from kale to courgettes to mixed salad bags and edible flowers, and then sell them at various markets. "It's rewarding," Biggins says fondly. "These are people dealing with mental health issues who may have cut themselves off from society or retreated into themselves, and they're out there providing a service—a service they've been in charge of from beginning to end. They're out there seeing people value and love the food they've farmed themselves; it's extremely rewarding for them. It's healing."

And his results don't lie. Discussions and questionnaires with his residents reveal that 97 percent of them feel useful whilst on the MindFood program, 92 percent feel calmer and happier, and 72 percent feel they've learned to deal with their problems in a more healthy way.

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"I needed to feel necessary again," a patient named Priyanka tells me; suffering from depression had taken its toll on the young woman and she wasn't getting the help she needed. Medication wasn't working for her; likewise with therapy. "I felt like I was just going through the motions. I was close to giving up," she admits, until she found her saviour in the unlikely form of her garden. Like the residents of MindFood and other care farms cropping up across the UK, Priyanka found solace in tending to her vegetables. "I grow tomatoes," she tells me with a smile, "it isn't much, but they're mine. I grow them and I think 'I did that. I made this'".