On World Mental Health Day (10th October), Help for Heroes’ Plymouth Recovery Centre was reflecting on the benefits its Hero Garden has offered to wounded veterans and their families since its opening in 2015.
Over the last year the Hero Garden at Help for Heroes’ Plymouth Recovery Centre, within Devonport Naval Base, has produced 47 varieties of fruit, vegetables and herbs, including more than 50kgs of potatoes.
Its 480,000 bees have prepared 80lbs of honey and 129 litres of apple juice were made from the apple trees on site.
But beyond the visible success, the garden has produced more important, often hidden, benefits.
Horticulture has long been advocated as a therapeutic pursuit, promoting physical activity in an often relaxing environment where the focus is on nature. In recent years awareness of the psychological benefits of gardening has risen after a UK-based 2007 study by the University of Bristol and University College London found that microbes in soil affect the brain in a similar way to antidepressants.
Help for Heroes recognises these benefits and actively promotes horticultural therapy at its Recovery Centres in Plymouth, Tidworth, Colchester and Catterick.
Leigh-Ann Jones from Ivybridge near Plymouth is part of Help for Heroes’ Band of Sisters fellowship, which supports the families of the wounded. She was introduced to the Recovery Centre by husband Chris, an ex-Army Air Corps soldier whose physical injuries led to years of poor mental health. It was soon recognised by a Help for Heroes Psychological Wellbeing Advisor that, as well as supporting Chris, Leigh-Ann was also in need of support.
A long history of death in the family throughout her childhood contributed to constant high levels of anxiety and stress for Leigh-Ann. Eight women in her family were lost to breast cancer which caused Leigh-Ann to opt to undergo surgical menopause and a double mastectomy in adulthood after finding out she had an 85 per cent chance of developing breast cancer and a 65 per cent chance of getting ovarian cancer. The operation led to ongoing neck and shoulder problems, and compounded the already ongoing severe anxiety and stress.
Help for Heroes’ Psychological Wellbeing Advisor recognised this and referred Leigh-Ann to Macmillan who were able to offer her the specific psychological support she needed. Although the support is ongoing, that referral, and husband Chris’ referral to South West Veterans Mental Health Service, have helped the couple move forward using the coping strategies that have been introduced.
For Leigh-Ann, one such strategy turned out to be immersing herself in gardening, within Plymouth Recovery Centre’s Hero Garden.
“I haven’t got the space for a garden at home so the Hero Garden gives me an excuse to be outside. Gardening is usually quite hard for me because of my own medical problems but the raised beds are excellent as I can overcome my back problems.
“Being in the garden helps me manage my anxiety. I can tend to the garden on my own or with others and it’s just a beautiful environment. You’re in control and there’s always something to do. Weeding is a therapy in itself!
“Chris sits and reads his book on a weekend when I come in to tend to the garden. It’s such a peaceful environment when you want it to be and it can also be social when there are others around helping.
“It’s always an achievement to start with a little seed and look after it until it turns into something that you can eat yourself or give to others. It makes you feel good and gives you something to focus on. It’s about learning; different plants, types, taste; it’s just awesome.
“Help for Heroes helped me recognise my own problems; I now have support thanks to their referral and I have an outlet to help heal myself in the Hero Garden. Chris and I have had so much support and I want to give something back.”
Beneficiaries and supporters of Help for Heroes in Plymouth recently celebrated the one year anniversary of the Hero Garden opening at a garden party. Guests were treated to pasties and cakes, some of which had been made using produce from the garden, music from the Devonport Royal Navy Volunteer Band and the chance to get involved in arts and crafts activities offered at the Centre.
As well as offering psychological wellbeing support to veterans within its Recovery Centres, Help for Heroes also runs Hidden Wounds which offers free and confidential support via phone, Skype or face to face, to veterans, their relatives and the families of those still serving who are struggling with common mental health challenges such as anxiety, depression or anger.
Help for Heroes Hidden Wounds has helped almost 1,000 veterans since being launched in September 2014 and has recorded a 66 per cent increase in referrals, growing from 304 in the year to September 2015 to 505 a year later. Of those 505, at least 341 were veterans or reservists and at least 100 were family members of veterans or service personnel.
The Hidden Wounds team can be contacted confidentially by calling 0808 2020 144 (free from UK landlines) weekdays 9am - 5pm or via this page.