Don’t get me wrong; I love to do a bit of gardening every now and then. Plant some flowers, grow some vegetables, mow the lawn. It’s a great activity when the sun’s out, and I even find it quite relaxing. There’s a good reason for this; psychological studies have found that gardening can be a great activity for your mental health, encouraging you to live in the moment, vent anger and aggression, and feel in control of something in your life.
Nevertheless, if you asked me to pick an area to invest £4.5 million in to improve mental health services in the UK, I probably wouldn’t choose gardening.
Unfortunately, this is exactly what new Health Secretary Matt Hancock did. In a move to reduce the number of prescriptions for anti-depressants given out by doctors, Hancock announced that people suffering from depression and anxiety would instead be sent to gardening and arts clubs.
I believe this decision completely ignores the growing mental health crisis in the UK. People are waiting up to two years to access specialist support for their mental health, and travelling hundreds of miles just for a hospital bed with a consultant psychiatrist. Between 2012 and 2017, 217 people died because of failings in their treatment.
These are the areas that the Government should be investing time and money into to improve, not gardening projects.
I was also concerned by the pill-shaming approach to mental health the new Health Secretary seemed to adopt, with the announcement focusing on reducing prescriptions for antidepressants.
I know for myself, and for many others, it took a long time to accept that I needed help and to start taking medication. Even after deciding to take antidepressants, the stigma attached to them means I still regularly question my decision.
The fact that one in six adults takes antidepressants does not necessarily mean doctors are handing them out like sweets to whoever walks in to their office, and does not necessarily need to be something that concerns us.
What it does mean is that more people feel comfortable seeking help for their mental health, and I’d argue that one in six people taking medication is better than one in six people struggling to get out of the house every morning.
This renewed stigma against prescribed medication, which Hancock refers to as “unsophisticated drugs”, is exactly the opposite direction in which we should be heading.
That’s not to say medication is the only answer to people’s mental health problems. I am always trying to find new ways to support myself that don’t involve taking a higher dosage of antidepressants, and I look forward to the day when I don’t have to take them at all.
Yet, if I hadn’t first started to take them, I’d never have been able to think like this. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to attend a gardening club when even a simple walk into town was giving me anxiety attacks.
What would have helped me, though, was a doctor’s appointment longer than 10 minutes where I could explain my problems properly. What would have helped even more was access to therapy as soon as I was given medication.
When I moved to Belgium, on finding out I was taking antidepressants, my doctor immediately informed me I was entitled to 30 sessions of therapy. Even better, this wasn’t one that I had to wait any amount of time to access, nor travel 40 minutes on public transport trying to suppress an anxiety attack to get to.
If the Health Secretary’s goal is really to reduce the number of people on medication, he should be investing in more therapy in the UK to ensure those who take medication do so only for the minimum period needed for them.
This is the change we need in the UK. People’s mental health won’t improve if we send them to gardening clubs instead of the pharmacy. It will if we start taking mental health care seriously.