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Mental Health Therapy is Rooted in Gardening

Thursday, October 24, 2013

More than 200 pounds of produce has been donated to the Interfaith Food Pantry in Morris Plains from a garden grown in two 10 by 20 plots by clients from the Mental Health Association Morris County (MHAMC) and NewBridge Services, two separate non-profit organizations. For the growers, the rewards have been a gain in self-esteem and life skills.

“Horticultural therapy engenders the person on the receiving end of care to become a caretaker themselves, a transformative and life-altering process,” said John Beirne, horticulturist therapist at NewBridge, which has an Enrich garden of ornamental plants. “It’s the process of using nature, plants and gardening as a structured and goal-driven vehicle toward wellness. Plants help people heal! Clients also develop skills that are transferable to the workplace, including responsibility, cooperation and follow-through.”

Some 40 clients planted squash, eggplant, tomatoes, beans, corn, lettuce, pepper, cabbage, and more at the Morris County Park Commission’s (MCPC) Community Garden last spring and have reaped the rewards over the summer and into the fall. The vegetable garden was the brainchild of Robin Coley, peer liaison and a self-help specialist for integrated case management services at MHAMC.

She had noticed that agricultural therapy was the direction in which mental health services is moving towards and researched community gardens. Coley enlisted the help of Beirne, a former MHA employee. Once the MCPC came on board, “things fell into place,” said Coley, noting that MCPC already was a donor to the food pantry.

“There were 30 people at the first meeting,” she said. “Everybody was so interested. The program started in similar fashion to any grass roots project, building upon itself.”

The clients, also called consumers, work the garden on Monday mornings on a rotating schedule due to transportation limitations. “They love it and have a great time,” said Coley.

Jokes and shared time have not only grown vegetables, but also friendships. Additionally, the garden has elicited true dedication from the participants. One consumer in particular took it upon himself to tend the garden more frequently on Mondays. He said to Coley that while others went to the beach, he got to visit the garden and cool off with the waterhose. He expressed his gratitude for the opportunity.

Assisting Coley on this project were Marissa Ferrito, MHAMC’s coordinator for self-help and consumer advocacy, and Tracy Cappiccille, MHAMC’s assistant director for self-help and consumer advocacy. Ferrito offered that the joint effort of MHA and NewBridge has allowed the clients/consumers to work together, a rarity among non-profit organizations. She has enjoyed watching people, at different stages of wellness, join forces as a team and get more accomplished than they would alone. The participants also flourished from the experience in the garden and the fact that they were giving back to the community.

The gardening program was recognized by MHA New Jersey with a Leadership Award. Coley said that the other MHA chapters offered praise for what was being done in Morris County.  “Much in mental health is on a crisis basis,” she said. “This is a prevention opportunity to focus on mental wellness.”

Beirne noted, “The clients are leaning life skills and an appreciation for contributing to their community. We encouraged clients to eat some of the vegetables from the organic and chemical-free garden. Many of them came back and said they had never tasted such good vegetables!”


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