It is that amazingly British week, the high point of the gardening year - the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. When you see pictures of the beautiful flowers at the show, take a careful look at the people and you might spot the hundreds of health-supporting free radicals and a marked absence of stress hormones. And if you are wondering about the future of the NHS, take a look at the trees in the show gardens and you might just see all the money the NHS is being saved by those gardeners who find themselves with fewer mental health problems.
Seriously, horticultural therapy is a proven way of helping people with a range of mental health problems and it uses gardening to meet specific therapeutic or rehabilitative goals. In Gardening Leave's case, we help the men and women who serve our country, specifically the 20% of Armed Forces veterans who face a mental health issue. Now try not to be shocked about how low or high this number is. Trust me, people are shocked but it is a similar number to civilians' mental health challenges.
Among those who come through our garden gate at Gardening Leave, two-thirds have a diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and one third suffer depression and anxiety. On average, the veterans are aged between 35-45 years old and they have 11 years of service. We have approximately 150 veterans on our books at any one time and they will have seen active duty in at least one of the following conflicts: Falklands, Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Gulf 1 and 2. Yes you read correctly Northern Ireland. There is a lot of focus on those returning from Afghanistan and so there should be, but those who served in earlier conflicts have just as many issues to face.
On average a veteran waits about 12 years to seek help, these are the toughest of people. Sometimes it is a sudden onset but for all of them it is only at the darkest hour that they finally ask for help. Recent research shows that reservists tend to have higher levels of mental distress so we know we will be needed for some time to come, long after the wars are forgotten.
Veterans don't lie about it even when they do finally talk about it. Think about how you might feel if your life was dominated by flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety, hyper-vigilance, insomnia, an inability to concentrate, mood swings, intrusive thoughts, depression, possible psychosis, and substance misuse/self-medication. Perhaps you have lost your job and your family, perhaps you have difficulty relating to civilians, you only shop at night, and hate meeting new people, you don't know how to cook and you only own a saucepan or a frying pan and you are finding civilian life much more difficult than life in the military.
Gardening activities are very successful at bringing the NHS five steps to mental wellbeing to life. The metaphors abound in the garden and the cycle of planting, growing, harvesting, eating, donating and selling are very effective at helping veterans develop coping strategies, overcome fears and make the transition to a civilian life.
I suspect that at the root (forgive the pun) is that the garden does not judge them and it responds positively to their attention. Some go on to a job in horticulture, others find their own life potentials. For some it is their first time they deliver salad to a local café or cook for 70 homeless people or plant their first sweet pea or sell their first bird box.
We call these 'straight back moments', when veterans' confidence and concentration returns and they feel the return of pride. Ironic really as gardening is hard on the back!