In tune with nature

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From the heart of the Cornish countryside Bosence Farm Community has been developing ecotherapy, as Tom Packer explains.               

Read the article in DDN Magazine

‘One of the main things I wanted was to come somewhere where I could get away from things. At Bosence I feel completely removed from temptation and can focus on my treatment and concentrate on getting well.’

Coming down from London to 22 acres of beautiful Cornish gardens and woodland, Nick found a tranquil environment away from all distractions. Alongside the detoxification, stabilisation and round-the-clock nursing support – including a highly specialised service for young people – Bosence has recently introduced an ecotherapy programme.

Nick can now take part in four individual weekly sessions:

  • Propagation, providing clients with the necessary skills to learn how to plant seeds and care for plants.
  • Herbal tea making, which aims to promote wellness and relieve stress by helping participants to achieve a more relaxed state of mind. Those taking part are introduced to a range of herbs and gain an understanding of how they nourish the nervous system and strengthen the immune system.
  • Nature observation, designed to promote care, respect and understanding of the natural world. Clients learn how to identify different species of wildlife and observe and interpret the environment around them.
  • Forest bathing and mindfulness, which teaches the basic principles of forest bathing, mindfulness, improving sensory awareness and breathing techniques.

‘In the mornings I’ll often take a walk around the grounds, just to admire the scenery and breathe in the country air,’ says Nick. ‘I’ve really enjoyed the guided nature walks around the nature trail, where I have been able to take part in wildlife surveys, to identify a range of species. I’ve been given responsibility to look after the greenhouses, which I really appreciate as it’s my way of giving back and contributing to the day-to-day running of Bosence. I’ve learnt so much.’

In an age of technology there is mounting evidence to suggest that by pushing away from nature, we have begun to lose contact with a necessary tool for optimal mental health.

Pioneering research carried out by R S Ulrich in the late 1970s examined the psychological influence of scenes of nature on the stress experienced by individuals and medical recovery rates. Ulrich was able to demonstrate that observing ‘natural’ scenes increased feelings of friendliness, affection, joy and playfulness, boosting the production of serotonin without the use of antidepressant medication.

In more recent years there has been a growing recognition of ecotherapy and the vital role it plays in optimising positive mental health, with a clear application in supporting individuals to overcome addiction and maintain long term recovery. Ecotherapy can also give people a sense of achievement and purpose, providing structure and routine to people who might not have these in their lives.

A recent article published in New Scientist explores the importance of outdoor space and nature in recovery and mental health. It describes how in the Shetland Islands, people with a physical or mental ill health are being recommended to ‘take in the sights and sounds of seabird colonies, build woodland dens or simply appreciate the shapes of clouds’.

A New Zealand initiative found that two-thirds of patients were ‘more active and felt healthier’ six to eight months after this ‘green prescription’, it adds, and almost half had lost weight. ’Meanwhile, ecotherapy, which involves participating in outdoor activities such as gardening or conservation, is emerging as a promising treatment for mild to moderate depression.’

These findings are also supported by a study from the University of Essex that found that a walk in the country reduces depression in 71 per cent of participants. The researchers found that as little as five minutes in a natural setting, whether walking in a park or gardening in the backyard, improves mood, self-esteem, and motivation. A reduction in stress has been proven to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, reduce pulse rate and lower blood pressure.

The sessions at Bosence are all facilitated by horticulturalist and land manager, Noah Hall, who ensures the grounds are maintained to the highest standard, enabling clients to fully benefit from the incredible natural environment. Over the last few years he has created a woodland nature trail and sensory garden, and is also responsible for an ever increasing harvest of fresh organic produce, grown in several on-site polytunnels and allotments.

To complement the ecotherapy sessions, Noah also provides a weekly cookery session to those enrolled on the residential treatment programme, with much of the produce sourced on site. Alongside the structured sessions, residential clients have the option to help with seed sowing, potting on, planting veg and flowers, weeding, watering, strawberry picking, or whatever needs doing, and also have the opportunity to conduct wildlife surveys.

Feedback from the sessions has been overwhelmingly positive, with participants commenting that they have found them to be both informative and inspiring, while helping them to feel calm and relaxed.

Holly, a local client from Cornwall, says that the ecotherapy project has provided her with a number of new experiences and opportunities. ‘In the last few weeks I’ve acquired the skills to identify a variety of the different types of herbs and through education sessions I’ve gained knowledge on how to combine, prepare and cook different types of tea,’ she says.

‘Since the start of my treatment, I’ve regularly been involved with the planting and harvesting of fruit and vegetables. In particular, I’ve enjoyed taking part in “Vegan Friday”, where I have learnt new recipes and prepared several dishes using only the produce grown on site. When I complete treatment, I will definitely continue to cook these recipes as regularly as I can.

‘I’m looking forward to taking part in mindfulness sessions in the next couple of weeks,’ she adds. ‘I feel so relaxed in such a tranquil and peaceful environment.’

The coming weeks will see the introduction of a formal measurement tool to gauge and monitor client feedback, similar to those we use to evaluate the effectiveness of the various interventions that comprise our treatment programmes. In the longer term, we plan to offer a formal structured 12-week ecotherapy programme that will include sessions such as creative writing and drawing outdoors.

We’re lucky that our spacious and diverse site has afforded us with the perfect environment to incorporate such a varied range of ecotherapy techniques into our programmes.

 

Tom Packer is business development manager at Bosence Farm Community, a member of the Choices Treatment Consortium