Volunteering for mental health

As Head Gardener of St Mary’s Church, Walthamstow, I have been really pleased with the numbers of volunteers who have joined me recently. Tuesday to Friday, 1-4pm, we quite often have 7-8 people. Volunteers are always welcome. However, it has also become apparent that the sessions are having a therapeutic effect on the mental health of volunteers too. The article below explores, with permission, some of their stories. 

Wendy is a thirty-something with the most piercing blue eyes you have ever seen. I had to ask whether they were contact lenses. When her father, then mother, died two years ago, she spiralled into an extreme form of grief which triggered anorexia, hospitalisation and suicidal thoughts. She was put on anti-depressants. 

It is a familiar story. 

When her partner started volunteering in St Mary’s churchyards four months ago, Wendy was apprehensive. The graves, the dead bodies played on her mind. Yet, as she saw him starting to enjoy the experience she became more intrigued. After three, two hour sessions clearing Ivy and leaves she has changed her attitude. “I thought that the graveyard would be a barrier, but it has actually helped me to accept what happened. The graves are a positive.” Death has been normalised for her in a way that she perhaps wasn’t ready for until now. “I have never seen the point of gardening before, but I am loving it.”

The mental health crisis in this country is widely acknowledged as is the need to address it in more subtle ways than chemical numbness. Keats, the romantic poet with some experience in this area, starts his Ode on Melancholy, “No, no, go not to Lethe” rejecting the oblivion of drink, drugs or suicide in favour of “rose…salt sand wave…peonies”: an appreciation of nature. This is not a trite substitute for drugs, he argues, but rather part of a process of accepting that melancholy and delight are intertwined. I have been surprised how powerfully volunteer gardening can act on all sorts of people in helping them appreciate the mental weather they experience. I am also humbled to have been a facilitator of the experience for them. 

David is a fifty something whose face is expressive , but also shows the marks of a difficult life. “This is my Prozac,” he says of the volunteering he does three times a week now. “It should be compulsory”. Working outside in November and December takes him back to a time in his life where the woods were his playground. Reconnecting him to the squirrels of childhood, brings back a Proustian moment when he was happy. He believes that the modern world has stripped us of our genetic heritage and disconnected us from nature. He too has experience of prescription medicine which, he believes, is less effective than getting his hands dirty. 

Sarah is a fifty-something woman of striking looks. She has volunteered for more than a year, steadily taking on more and more graves, beds and monuments to cultivate. There is a clear relish to her time in the churchyards. She loves thinking about how to combine plants and their capabilities. She also has a long-term chronic health condition. “Being part of something bigger than yourself, learning and sharing knowledge are all good things for the human brain,” she says, echoing the experience of other volunteers. For her, it can be a mood changer. Laughter, friendship and a sense of achievement are also important elements of why she keeps coming back. 

If you have been struck by these stories and want to volunteer, at St Mary’s or near to where you live, feel free to get in touch. You might also look at the Forest Flora website which promotes horticultural volunteering within Waltham Forest: https://forestflora.co.uk

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