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Sowing Seeds for Mental and Planetary Health

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Wellness blooms thanks to a therapeutic garden and horticultural therapy program at Vancouver General Hospital.

As a vocational rehabilitation coordinator for Vancouver Coastal Health’s adult tertiary mental health and substance use program, and a Green+Leader, Leo Gosselin is responsible for developing, implementing, and overseeing educational, volunteer and vocational programming for adults with serious mental health and/or substance use issues. His ultimate goal for patients and clients is for them to take ownership of their own recovery, and eventually make a successful return to community — gardening, he discovered, is a powerful tool in supporting that journey.

For people with mental health and addiction issues, gardening can be meaningful therapy. It is gratifying, healing, and purposeful. It offers lessons on life, change, and hope. In fact, research shows that putting your hands in the soil can reduce anxiety and promote positive thinking and inner tranquility.

In clinical therapeutic settings, using gardening to cultivate well-being is known as horticultural therapy. According to the Canadian Horticultural Therapy Association, “Horticultural Therapy (HT) is a formal practice that uses plants, horticultural activities and the garden landscape to promote well-being for its participants.”

After researching the practice and its use in clinical settings, Leo was inspired to submit a proposal to establish designated garden spaces in the Segal Building and Willow Pavillion and a complementary horticultural therapy program, serving clients across Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) and Providence Health Care. The VGH/UBC Hospital Foundation awarded him the funding to purchase equipment and supplies in 2019 and Leo also secured funding to hire a professional horticultural therapist, Moira Solange, who “created a program that really works for our clients.”

Photo: The garden is a place for patients to develop their confidence, learn how to care for plants and spend time outdoors

Moira’s program offers clients the opportunity to engage in meaningful therapy, learn new skills, and socialize in safe and supportive spaces. Patients develop their confidence, learn how to care for plants, spend time outdoors, and perhaps share a meal with food they’ve grown, harvested, and cooked with others in the community. From the start, the program has been warmly embraced by everyone from management to patients and staff.

Photo: Food is harvested from the garden and shared

Over the last three years, seeing patients work in the soil, plant seeds, caring for plants, and taking ownership of maintaining the garden has been deeply rewarding for Leo. The garden spaces offer bountiful opportunities for enjoyment, learning, and well-being.

I see how the garden and the garden program lifts up and empowers our patients and staff.”

Seeing how it has the potential to improve a client’s life in a short time affirms Leo’s belief in the healing powers of nature. He would like to see the program expand across VCH and for more green spaces to be developed. It’s something he considers essential to patient care: “We cannot really have healthy staff and patients without a healthy environment.”