Treating depression, anxiety, and related issues is much more difficult than, say, zapping a case of strep throat with an antibiotic. While there are a number of effective medications that can help, in addition to these, some doctors in England have begun writing prescriptions for something that doesn’t come in a pill bottle, but rather a pot.
Cornbrook Medical Practice, in Manchester, England, is among the first UK healthcare facilities to specifically prescribe plants as a treatment for mood disorders, according to Fast Company. They provide patients with a potted plant, usually an easy-care herb like sage or lavender, to take home. Patients have the option to plant the herb in Cornbrook's newly opened community wellbeing garden, which was created in association with nonprofit Sow the City. The goal is to involve their patients, who are often socially isolated and have little access to outdoor spaces for recreation, in gardening with others and keep them coming back.
The idea of telling patients struggling with anxiety and depression to get out and garden might seem a little unconventional, but there’s a substantial amount of clinical research indicating that spending time with plants improves our well-being, both mental and physical. A study from 2016 looked at all the available research on how gardening can affect the mood, and found that there is “robust evidence for the positive effects of gardening on health.”
Among those benefits are reductions in depression, anxiety, and body mass index. People also reported improvements in areas such as their life satisfaction, quality of life, and a sense of community.
Many smaller studies have found all kinds of other benefits. For example, a 2012 study found that seniors who engaged in “therapeutic gardening” reported reduced pain, increased flexibility, and reduced stress. A 2015 study found that spending time with indoor plants appeared to reduce both mental and physical stress in young men. Similar to the 2016 study's results, most of these types of studies are finding that activities involving plants like gardening are extremely beneficial to people of all ages.
Issuing prescriptions for a regimen of gardening is a form of “social prescribing,” an approach that's been around in the UK and Scandinavia for some time. It's part of an effort to treat the whole person, rather than a single problem, often through activities that have a social element and involve a little physical activity. These can include art classes, gym memberships, a nature hike, and now caring for plants.
Here in the US, doctors may not be prescribing gardening, but horticultural therapy is a strategy that healthcare providers are turning to more and more often. Several major hospital systems even offer it as part of their rehabilitation services for a variety of physical and mental ailments. At NYU Langone in New York City, one of the country’s top hospitals, horticultural therapy has been a successful program since the 1970s. According to the hospital’s website, “By working with plants, you can gain a sense of personal accomplishment, productivity, self-reliance, and independence."
There are no easy solutions for depression and anxiety, but the research is clearly showing that growing plants can certainly help. Plus, there are plenty of secondary benefits to gain through gardening, such as having fresh food to enjoy and increased curb appeal.