For mental health awareness week, I consider the therapeutic qualities of soil, both in terms of the well-being derived from the practice of gardening, and the biochemical reactions triggered by soil biology.
Mental health awareness week was founded by the Mental Health Foundation in 2000 and since then has taken place every year in the second week on May, seeking to raise awareness of mental health issues and how to improve the mental health of ourselves and those around us. The theme this year is ‘Surviving or Thriving?’.
We seem to be increasingly accepting the idea that experiencing high and frequent levels of anxiety, stress and depression are an integral part of everyday life. A report commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation in March earlier this year found that in the UK more than 4 in 10 people say they have experienced depression and over a quarter of people say they have experienced panic attacks. Nearly two-thirds of people say that they have experienced a mental health problem, which rises to 7 in every 10 women, young adults aged 18-34 and people living alone.
Many people, including myself, have championed the positive impacts of gardening on mental health. Gardening gets us in the great outdoors, connects us with nature and exercises our bodies and minds, triggering the release of endorphins which induce positive feelings. It can be time to meditate and reflect on our experiences, time to socialise with others and connect with our community, and can be a channel for our needs to nurture and care for other things. More indirectly, if it is food we are cultivating, we are more likely to be eating a more balanced diet which inevitably has a multitude of benefits for both body and mind.
Beyond this, more recent research has explored how gardeners might also be increasing their mental well-being in a more ‘scientific’ way- through their contact with the soil itself. Soil naturally contains a bacterium called Mycobacterium vaccae, which has been proven to cause the release of the neurotransmitter serotonin, low levels of which are often linked to depression. There are a multitude of benefits associated with with reaction, including the improvement of mood, alleviation of anxiety, improved cognitive function and there is also research exploring its potential to treat cancer, tuberculosis, asthma, leprosy and improve immunity.
When we are in contact with soil, we inhale these bacteria and receive a boost to our serotonin levels. Not only that, but we also consume the bacteria in the food we eat, highlighting further the importance of soil health in the nutritional levels of our fruit and vegetables.
From this perspective, it is clear that gardening and activities involving direct contact with soil need to be supported as a way to tackle the UK’s increasingly mental health issues. It could be used in schools to improve pupils’ cognitive functions, used in community gardens to reach the nation’s demographics who are most vulnerable to mental health issues, such as unemployed and low-income individuals. It could be used to reduce the pressure on the NHS to support our mental health, tackling the problem at the root rather than simply offering medication.
As the Mental Health Foundation points out, having good mental health is not just the absence of a mental health problem, but having the ability to think, act, and feel in a way that allows us to enjoy life and deal with the challenges it presents. Perhaps it is time then that we challenge the assumption that life is inherently anxiety-inducing, and reflect on what activities may actively improve our well-being. Perhaps its time we get muddy.