Horticultural Therapy Treating Disability?

One of the challenges facing Australia’s Healthcare system is how to best deal with a long-term disability from both a patient and a community perspective. Traditional interventionist methods expensive and place a significant load on staff and resources.

In an effort to bring a more holistic approach to disability care, new approaches are being actively explored. One new method for working with people with disabilities is horticultural therapy.

Holistic Horticultural Connections

Healthcare practitioners have long suspected the benefits of connecting or re-connecting humans to nature. Research shows interacting with nature and forging connections with nature-related activities provides a phenomenal range of health and well-being benefits to humans.

Early civilizations dating back to the ancient Egyptians understood the importance of this connection. Egyptian physicians prescribed walks around a garden for patients with mental illness. This was the first evidence of the therapeutic process in Alexandria and Ancient Egypt. During the Middle Ages, monastery hospitals planted their grounds for the express purpose of cheering up melancholy patients, while the gardens were used as part of the prescribed treatment for both the physical and mental ailments of patients who visited them.

In more modern times, the recorded instance of horticulture being used as a treatment strategy for mental health purposes was in the 1800s. Dr. Benjamin Rush in the United States discovered field labour in a farm setting helped realize positive outcomes for clients suffering from mental illness. This discovery led many hospitals in the western world to begin using horticulture as an aspect in therapeutically treating patients with mental health and developmental disabilities. In 1817, the Asylum for Persons Deprived of Their Reason, today known as Friends Hospital, constructed an environment with landscaping, paths and a park environment in an effort to assist patients with their recovery. Continuing this, Friends Hospital built the first greenhouse to be used for therapy in 1879.

Horticultural Therapy Defined

Horticultural therapy has been defined as the engagement of a person in gardening and plant-based activities, facilitated by a trained therapist, to achieve specific therapeutic treatment goals. The visual aesthetics of plants are known to elicit feelings of inner peace, which generates positive emotions toward a meaningful appreciation of life. Direct contact with plants guides the individual’s focus away from stress enhancing their overall quality of life.

Contemporary Experience

Researchers today are again proving that nature plays an increasingly important role in our physical and mental health. Horticultural therapists in Australia are specially educated and trained members of rehabilitation teams (together with doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists and occupational therapists psychiatrists) who involve the client in all phases of gardening, from propagation to selling products, as a means of bringing about improvement in their life and well-being.

One such practitioner is Dr. Chris Reed, who qualified in health science, disability, teaching horticulture and landscape design. Dr. Reed first started working in the field of horticultural therapy at a disability service unit in rural Victoria, Australia back in 1981. Over the past 35 years, Dr. Reed has been a consistent advocate for the use of gardens and gardening activities for health, wellbeing and human empowerment. Dr. Reed also advises both government and the non-government sectors on the benefits of gardens and green space in particular for human health. Dr. Reed completed his Ph.D. specializing in horticultural therapy at Deakin University where he remains a member of the University’s Health, Nature and Sustainability Research Group. Dr. Reed is a regular contributor to horticultural and landscape journals and has spoken on the subject of horticultural therapy at numerous conferences, public meetings and on the radio.

Dr. Chris Reed and his team at Humanscape have lent their expertise and passion to a diverse range of clients including: Middle Park Primary School’s Nature Play and Indigenous Inspired Garden, Gladswood a residential care facility, Kalkee, the Department of Health and Human Services, Transport Accident Commission, Uniting Age Well, St Laurance Services, Box Hill Hospital, Darebin and Bellarine Community Health services, Mind Australia and Benetas Aged Care.

As the pressure mounts on Australia’s Healthcare system, alternative ways of providing effective care for disability sufferers are being explored with horticultural therapy offering an effective alternative to more conventional approaches. The approach caters to a range of contexts, varying from healing and sensory gardens, through to vocational and school gardens, rehabilitation gardens, and horticultural therapy gardens.

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