Greenhouse Nurtures Confidence and Skills in Montana Psychiatric Patients

by Candi Helseth

Anaconda Garden Club Plant Sale

Residents and staff from the Healing Waters Greenhouse in Warm Springs, Mont., sell the greenhouse products at local farmers’ markets.

Patients with long-term mental illness are finding that digging in the dirt is truly healing. At Healing Waters Greenhouse, patients have found that their social skills have improved, their stress has decreased and they have developed skills that will help them function in the work world once they are discharged from Montana State Hospital at Warm Springs, Mont.

Rehabilitation Department Manager Beth Eastman initiated the grant-funded greenhouse project with the dual purpose of providing therapeutic intervention along with actual work experience. Patients grow flowers, vegetables and herbs in the 48 x 24-foot greenhouse erected in early 2013 on the State Hospital property. Eastman said it’s been amazing to watch how the patients see metaphors between their own lives and what they do in the greenhouse. Even more amazing, she said, is how gardening helps them better cope with their disease and circumstances.

“Patients talk about what can grow from consistent care and how the love and attention they put into their plants can carry over into their own lives,” Eastman said. “Their self confidence increases as they see their successes. Working together in the greenhouse improves their social interaction and lessens that tendency to want to isolate themselves. There have been so many ‘ah ha’ moments where we see a patient healing and being able to understand how this experience contributes to that healing. And the greenhouse atmosphere is very calming and relaxing. That’s therapeutic in itself.”

Healing Waters Greenhouse

The Healing Waters Greenhouse

Patients also gain work skills they can use when they leave. Currently, four patients are employed full-time at the greenhouse year-round, earning minimum wage.  When they aren’t involved in plant growth and production, they do plant research on future crops, business planning and other off-season tasks.

“We want their experience to reflect the real world,” Treatment Specialist Mindy Gochis said. “Paying them empowers them to have their own income and to exercise some control over it. Our social workers help them develop realistic budgets. Some are paying restitution, some are saving money for discharge and some have even offered to pay a portion of their hospital stay.”

Additional patients participate in a variety of work-related experiences overseen by the patient employees. In addition to growing the plants, work experiences include researching, marketing and advertising, inventory control, sales and other business-related functions. Operating the business empowers patients and makes them feel useful, Gochis noted.

“Even failure is a lesson,” she commented. “Throwing away that first plant was pretty traumatic because they had nurtured it and were so disappointed. But this gave us an opportunity to address failure and the ending of things and how we learn to move on.”

petunias

Petunias are among the flowers grown at the Healing Waters Greenhouse.

Plants grown at the greenhouse include flowers like petunias and zinnias, herbs including basil, rosemary, chives and cilantro, and landscape plants and houseplants.  Last fall, patients sold their products at the Anaconda Farmers’ Market. At first, Eastman said, patients were nervous about the community’s reaction.

“They didn’t want to identify themselves as being from the State Hospital,” she said. “But the local people welcomed them, and their self confidence just soared. They started talking to members of the public about their struggles. The other vendors helped them and treated them as they would any friends. One of the benefits we hadn’t really thought about is the way this has also helped reduce public stigma toward mental illness.”

This spring the Anaconda Garden Club invited patients to sell products at its annual event. Now patients are researching the possibility of branching out and selling at farmers’ markets in outlying towns.

“When people come into the hospital, they are often at the very lowest point in their life,” Eastman commented. “If we can just help them experience hope again, they begin to find some joy and pleasure in their lives. Tapping into experiences like gardening can help open those doors again. The greenhouse adds another positive dimension to treatment services we are already providing.”

The greenhouse was funded by a $141,000 grant from the Montana Mental Health Settlement Trust, created in 2010 to support programs, services, and resources for the prevention, treatment, and management of serious mental illness in Montana children and adults.

To learn more about the project, contact Beth Eastman at eeastman@mt.gov.


Back to: Spring 2014 Issue