‘Green’ therapy proving to be an effective panacea for mental illness

25 April 2017 - 22:16 By Justin Deffenbacher
Patients of Lentegeur Hospital are part of the Market Garden initiative which aims to rehabilitate those dealing with mental illness
Patients of Lentegeur Hospital are part of the Market Garden initiative which aims to rehabilitate those dealing with mental illness
Image: David Harrison

Along the back wall of a Mitchell Plain psychiatric facility Latief tends to a row of brinjals. He works quickly‚ removing dead leaves and pouring water around their bases.

Surrounding Latief‚ one of the patients at Lentegeur Hospital‚ is a 1.2 hectare garden which has been turned into an agricultural operation.

He is part of a revolutionary programme‚ backed by Western Cape Premier Helen Zille‚ known as the Market Garden Initiative. The “green therapy” programme aims to rehabilitate both criminal and civilian patients dealing with mental illness‚ through the therapeutic powers of gardening.

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Psychiatrist John Parker started the programme after nine years at Lentegeur‚ during which he saw rapid patient turnover and high return rates. “Eventually my work had just become heartbreaking. It felt like a sausage factory‚ churning out people who just came back sick again‚ never truly addressing the problems in society‚” Parker said.

The programme has had great success with over 80 patients taking part. Two patients have already been discharged‚ as a result of their participation.

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According to Parker it has rehabilitated some of the hospitals longest residents. “The patients we choose are the ones no one could work with. They sat in the wards all day; the only thing that they looked forward to was their next cigarette. Now they’ve been transformed into healthy‚ fit individuals who love gardening and some of which are even going home‚” Parker said.

Latief believes the programme is the reason behind his improvements.

“I feel as though I am able to work in the outside world again…like I am normal‚” he said.

Parker said many were skeptical of the initiative. But now‚ said Parker‚ even the community sees the hospital differently.

Lentegeur resident gardeners have now begun to sell vegetables at markets‚ in an attempt to connect with the community.

“We want to integrate with the community. Our whole goal is to reach a point where the image of mental health isn’t so stigmatised‚” director of the Spring Foundation Meryl Smith said.

With one in six South Africans suffering from a mental illness‚ Zille said programmes such as Lentegeur are in great need. Her office donated nearly R750‚000 to fund the project. “ While only a quarter of South Africans suffering from mental illness seek treatment‚ both Zille and Parker see it as a step in the right direction in terms of mental health treatment.

“In the Cape Flats‚ a place that has seen far too much suffering‚ it is great to celebrate something beautiful: the growth of a garden. This is somewhere were patients work in harmony with each other and with nature. This theme of connection is representative of our work here‚” Parker said.

* Not his real name

TMG Digital/TimesLIVE