Gardening Can Help Beat Depression
Every year, some 230 million prescriptions for antidepressants are filled, making them one of the most-prescribed drugs in the United States.
Despite this, the incidence of all forms of depression is now at 10 percent, according to 2012 statistics, and the number of Americans diagnosed with depression increases by about 20 percent per year.
Such statistics are a strong indication that what we’re doing is simply not working, and that instead, these drugs are contributing to other serious health problems. Fortunately, there are other, safer, more effective ways to address depression—including something as simple as spending more time outdoors.
Gardeners Are Happier than Most Others
And the more time spent in the garden, the higher their satisfaction scores—87 percent of those who tend to their gardens for more than six hours a week report feeling happy, compared to those spending less time in their gardens.
I can personally confirm this as over the past year I have started a major interest in high performance agriculture and biodynamic gardening, and have been busy applying it to my edible and ornamental landscape. I hope to soon teach all that I have learned.
Interestingly, fitness researchers have also found that when you exercise outdoors, you exercise harder but perceive it as being easier than when exercising indoors, which can have significant health benefits.
This feeling of well-being can have more far-reaching implications for your physical health too. According to recent research from Johns Hopkins, having a cheerful temperament can significantly reduce your odds of suffering a heart attack or sudden cardiac death. According to lead author Lisa R. Yanek, M.P.H., an assistant professor in the Division of General Internal Medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine:
“If you are by nature a cheerful person and look on the bright side of things, you are more likely to be protected from cardiac events. A happier temperament has an actual effect on disease and you may be healthier as a result.”
What the Research Says About Exercise and ‘Ecotherapy’ for Depression
Three years ago, I interviewed medical journalist and Pulitzer Prize nominee Robert Whitaker about his extensive research and knowledge of psychiatric drugs and alternative treatments for depression. He mentioned an interesting study conducted by Duke University in the late 1990’s, which divided depressed patients into three treatment groups:
- Exercise only
- Exercise plus antidepressant
- Antidepressant drug only
After six weeks, the drug-only group was doing slightly better than the other two groups. However, after 10 months of follow-up, it was the exercise-only group that had the highest remission and stay-well rate. According to Whitaker, some countries are taking these types of research findings very seriously, and are starting to base their treatments on the evidence at hand.
The UK, for example, does not routinely recommend antidepressants as the first line of therapy for mild to moderate depression anymore, and doctors there can write out a prescription to see an exercise counselor instead under the “exercise on prescription programme.”
Part of the exercise can be tending to an outdoor garden, taking nature walks, or repairing trails or clearing park areas—as discussed in the BBC video above. According to Dr. Alan Cohen, a British general practitioner with a special interest in mental health:
“[W]hen people get depressed or anxious, they often feel they’re not in control of their lives. Exercise gives them back control of their bodies and this is often the first step to feeling in control of other events.”
Within the first few years of the introduction of this so-called “Green Gym” or “Ecotherapy” program in 2007, the rate of British doctors prescribing exercise for depression increased from about four percent to about 25 percent.
Studies on exercise as a treatment for depression also show there’s a strong correlation between improved mood and aerobic capacity. So there’s a growing acceptance that the mind-body connection is very real, and that maintaining good physical health can significantly lower your risk of developing depression in the first place. According to a 2009 report on Ecotherapy by the British Depressionalliance.org:
“94 percent of people taking part in a MIND survey commented that green exercise activities had benefited their mental health; and 100 percent of volunteers interviewed during an outdoor conservation project agreed that participation benefited their mental health, boosted self-esteem and improved confidence. Furthermore, the National Institute for Clinical Excellence asserts that for ‘patients with depression… structured and supervised exercise can be an effective intervention that has a clinically significant impact on depressive symptoms.’”
Ready, Set, Garden!
Aside from increasing your sense of well-being, keeping a garden can also improve your health by providing you with fresher, uncontaminated food, and cutting your grocery bill. And you don’t need vast amounts of space either. You don’t even have to have a backyard. Apartment dwellers can even create a well-stocked edible garden.
There are tons of creative solutions that will allow you to make the most of even the tiniest space, and engaging your own creativity to solve space limitations can be part of your therapy. You can also start growing sprouts which is rapidly rewarding as, unlike gardens, in about one week you will have food that you can harvest and eat.
In her book The Edible Balcony, Alex Mitchell details how to grow fresh produce in small spaces. Filled with beautiful color photographs throughout, the book helps you determine what might work best for you, depending on your space and location, and guides you through the design basics of a bountiful small-space garden. For example, those who live in a high-rise apartment will undoubtedly have to contend with more wind than those who live on the bottom floor. There are solutions for virtually every problem, and in this case, wind-tolerant plants can be used, or you could construct some sort of protective screening.