People in a psychiatry program at southwestern Ontario's largest hospital are incorporating gardening into their therapy, finding connection and purpose as they navigate early psychosis episodes.
For Devin Millette, 19, the chance to be outside, tending to the outdoor garden at the London Health Sciences Centre (LHSC), has allowed him to make new friends and entertain them with his guitar.
"It's really great for everyone's mental health, just being out here in the wilderness with a garden. There's trees, so it's a great place to just go and relax when you've been cramped up wherever you are," Millette said.
Six garden boxes set up behind one of the older buildings at the LHSC were built during the pandemic, when activities and group therapy moved outside.
The garden is part of the Prevention and Early Intervention Program for Psychoses (PEPP), which provides intensive care to youth. Its goal is to encourage patients to interact with each other while growing their own vegetables.
"It's very patient centred," said PEPP's nurse case manager, Bettyann Goertz. "They do all the work and we just stand back and work with them therapeutically."
Chris Paulin-Wilson, 32, said being in the garden has helped his self-esteem and overall mood. He said he felt isolated during the pandemic, but is now enjoying the tasks that come with the garden.
"It's nice to come here and hang around a couple of PEPP clients. We just have a good time just finding new ways to plant the garden and socialize."
About three weeks ago, the garden was vandalized and several plants were ripped apart. Goertz said this devastated patients who watched their hard work destroyed, but it only motivated them to work harder.
"There are some really bad people, but there's also some great people out there. We were able to build it back as best as we could and spirits are stronger than ever."
Loss of community a 'risk factor'
Social ties among patients is an important aspect of the PEPP program and treatment for early episodes of psychoses, said Dr. Julie Richard, a psychiatrist. It made the pandemic experience all the more challenging for the people she treats.
"For youth who are going through serious mental health experiences, that loss of a sense of community is a really big risk factor," she said. "There's no more of an important age than late adolescence and early 20s for maintaining a social network and being able to progress."
She's grateful for the support the garden program has received from the hospital and community.
"People just willingly came together. They understood that our youth really needed this level of support and it was a brilliant idea born out of a difficult situation."
The garden recently received extra funding through grants, and the team plans to expand it, including working with LHSC's Indigenous program to incorporate healing gardens with traditional sage and herbs.
Goertz said she also hopes to one day add a greenhouse, so patients can continue gardening throughout the year.
As for Millette, he said he has only planted one tomato so far, but has big plans for next season.
"I would like to grow maybe cucumbers, I love those, and some zucchini. Anything for a salad. My mom loves salad so she would love that."