Getting out in nature is a great way to reduce stress, soothe the psyche, and ease tensions. Exercising outdoors can even make you smarter and turn around the physical decay of the brain.
So it makes sense that the town of Fresno, California is putting money into seven community gardens created especially for immigrants, refugees and residents of impoverished neighborhoods. The idea is that being out in nature and gardening can provide a haven of serenity and a sense of purpose particularly for older refugees, who often experience depression and post-traumatic stress and are isolated by language and poverty.
If you’re a gardener, you can probably relate to the idea that working in the garden relaxes you and improves your mood, while you enjoy the sensory experience of digging in the dirt.
As The New York Times reports:
Every Monday, Lee Lee, a Hmong refugee, grabs the hoe handmade by her father and brother in Laos and heads to the Hmong Village Community Garden here, where she tends rows of purple lemon grass, bitter melon and medicinal herbs along with other Hmong women.
“It lightens the load,” said Ms. Lee, whose depression has led her to think about suicide. “It brings peace, so I do not forget who I am.”
Four of the seven gardens are dedicated to Southeast Asians, many of whom were subsistence farmers in their homelands. This garden was established two years ago by the Fresno Center for New Americans for the Hmong people, many of whom experienced rape, starvation and the murder of family members during the Vietnam War.
This approach has a name: horticultural therapy. It dates back to Socrates, but it wasn’t until the 1700′s that Benjamin Rush, a psychiatrist and Declaration of Independence cosignatory, started documenting how gardening benefited his mentally ill patients.
Exactly how gardening works its magic is not clear, although scientists do know that gardening decreases cortisol, a hormone that plays a role in stress response.
What is clear is that horticultural therapy has been used in some pretty unconventional places – from prison yards to retirement and veteran homes to programs for troubled youth.
A 2011 report on a gardening program at a juvenile rehabilitation center in southwestern Ohio showed that this therapy helped the youngsters see themselves in a more positive light and helped them better manage their emotional and behavioral problems.
Gould Farm in Massachusetts has been using this philosophy to help people suffering from mental illness for nearly a century. Then there’s the Lettuce Grow Garden Foundation that develops and enhances vegetable gardens in prisons in Oregon.
In Fresno, gardening is also bringing happiness.
From The New York Times:
On a recent morning, Yer Vang, 53, sang a plaintive song about loneliness as she worked her rows of “zab zi liab,” a medicinal plant used to treat high blood pressure. Across the way, Mee Yang, a 65-year-old shaman, weeded long beans beside makeshift scarecrows made of rows of T-shirts slung over a wire. She said she suffered from diabetes and depression and worried about making ends meet (about 45 percent of Hmong children in Fresno County live in poverty, according to a recent report by the Asian Pacific American Legal Center and the Asian Law Caucus).
“This is my happiness,” Mrs. Yang said of the garden. “You feel the world in this place, and it brings you back home.”
It costs just about $171,000 a year for construction and maintenance of the community gardens and adjoining meeting spaces, but not everyone agrees that this is money well spent.
But as California continues to cut back funding for mental health services, this solution seems like a perfect idea.
Gardening is a wonderful balm, healing because it’s natural to us. Maybe we are really all farmers at heart, even if we’ve forgotten it or never discovered it.
Photo Credit: thinkstock