Community Gardening Proves ‘Powerful Medicine’

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Brighton & Hove health authorities urged to adopt outdoor activities schemes as new study shows all-round health benefits.

More than 2,000 people with mental health, addiction and other wellbeing issues have had their lives transformed through community gardening, according to an independent study by the University of Essex into Brighton & Hove Food Partnership’s Sharing the Harvest project.

The research, published on the first day of spring, found that after taking part in the initiative, which targeted vulnerable adults, an incredible:

  • 97% of participants reported improved happiness, mood or wellbeing,
  • 89% reported improved physical health, and
  • 90% reported greater skills or confidence.

In addition, participants increased their fruit and vegetable intake by an average of 14% and physical activity levels across the group increased between 10% and 17%.

Jess Crocker, senior manager of Sharing the Harvest, said: “These findings show the all-round benefits that outdoor-based therapeutic activities can bring. Nearly 100% of people said that their happiness increased as a result of taking part in Sharing the Harvest – that figure speaks for itself. The mental health benefits of gardening, and in particular growing your own food, now seem irrefutable.

“Even more promising are all the other benefits the project brought about, such as improved diet and increased exercise. The people we work with are more likely to have poor physical health and face a range of life challenges, which makes these improvements even more important. Community gardening is quite clearly powerful medicine.”

Green exercise

The Sharing the Harvest project saw adults with learning disabilities and autism, or experience of mental health problems, homelessness or addiction issues, volunteering in more than 75 community gardens across the city.

The study into the project was carried out by the University of Essex’s leading Green Exercise team of researchers. It concludes that such community gardening schemes should be integrated into Brighton & Hove’s health policy and practice in support of local and national strategic priorities.

It stresses that the study’s findings are particularly pertinent for a city such as Brighton and Hove where mental health needs are particularly high. Compared with national averages, a third more people in Brighton and Hove have a diagnosis of mental illness, twice as many people are hospitalised following self-harm and a third more die by suicide.

Research team member Professor Jules Pretty from the University of Essex said: “We know that nature is good for our wellbeing, and that activities in green places bring both mental and physical health benefits. Community gardening does something more: it links people in urban settings to places where food can be grown together and shows how skills and confidence can built.

“Sharing the Harvest are thus contributing to wider public health, and so taking pressure off acute and chronic care services in the NHS. This suggests local and national authorities should play a more active role in promoting community gardening, as it clearly brings wider health and wellbeing benefits.”

As well as hands-on gardening activities, Sharing the Harvest offered advice and one-to-one support to vulnerable adults to enable them to attend gardens, ran workshops and training events, and included talks about volunteering and visits to gardens to share knowledge and ideas.

The project ran for three years and it aimed to improve people’s physical and mental health and build their skills and confidence. It was supported by the Big Lottery Fund and built on Brighton & Hove Food Partnership’s previous work setting up and running community gardens.

Case story 1: Dave

Dave, 53, took part in Roots and Boots for a half-day a week when in a residential rehabilitation unit. Roots and Boots was a therapeutic gardening project for adults who had multiple and complex needs through homelessness, drug or alcohol addiction and mental health difficulties.

Dave said: “That day took me away from the demons in my mind and gave me a bit of space. That was valuable and gave me something to work towards. It gave me the idea that there was something else out there. It’s nice to know you’re contributing to something positive and it helped me to see that there was more to life than the run-down place I’d found myself in.”

Case story 2: Chris

Chris, 54, who had experienced some mental health problems, was referred to the Saunders Park Gardening Group. This group worked in the Saunders Park Edible Garden; a vibrant, edible community garden created from a forgotten and neglected space in a public park in Brighton.

Chris said: “It’s nice to get up in the morning to do something worthwhile. Getting out into Saunders Park with people of similar interest and outlook and mental illnesses makes you feel you’re in a group and you’re not the only one. I’m on state benefits and I’m looking now to find part-time or full-time employment in gardening.”

Long-term impact

The evaluation study analysed questionnaires from more than 1,000 people who had taken part in Sharing the Harvest. As well as the health benefits, the study found 75% of respondents reported improved skills in teamwork, 69% reported gains in motivation and personal development skills, and 60% reported improved communication skills.

It found that 88% of participants believed that taking part would have a long-term impact on them.

The report concludes: “… community gardening, such as that offered by Sharing the Harvest, can positively impact upon the physical health, mental wellbeing, skills, confidence and social support of vulnerable adults on a citywide scale, thus contributing to Brighton and Hove NHS Clinical Commissioning Group and Brighton and Hove City Council’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy.”

It recommends that “the beneficial outcomes offered by community gardening should be harnessed and promoted by local and national authorities, for public health and wellbeing improvements.”

For further information, more images or to arrange an interview or visit to one of the Sharing the Harvest community gardens, call Jess or Naomi on 01273 431700.Email: jess@bhfood.org.uk or naomi@bhfood.org.uk

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