Digging Deep

Sir Richard Thompson, President of the Royal College of Physicians in Britain claims that ‘time spent planting, pruning and propagating can be more powerful than a dose of expensive anti-depressant drugs”. Not surprisingly, the NHS is advising GPs to prescribe gardening rather than pills as a way to help individuals to beat depression. No doubt this shift from medication to horticulture is largely motivated by economics – much cheaper and, whilst not everybody is a horticulturist, most people can engage in some gardening activities – hedge-clipping, mowing the lawn, weeding, planting, watering plants and just the enjoyment of being outdoors. The shift is also due to the ever-increasing tide of evidence that the chemical properties of anti-depressants don’t have any therapeutic effects and that what works is the hope provided – known as the placebo effect (see Irving Kirsch’s book ‘The Emperor’ s New Drugs’ and Joanna Moncrieff’s ‘The Myth of the Chemical Cure’ which was shortlisted for the Mind Book of the Year 2009).

At face value, you would expect that gardening and other recommended activities such as camping, walking, swimming, dance lessons would be helpful in combating depression. Certainly, behavioural psychologists would agree that these activities are positively reinforcing and, as a result, could lead to an elevation of mood. However, individuals differ and it is unlikely that somebody who hates gardening would benefit. Research is now required to check out the validity of this gardening anti-dote for depression; at least there are none of the serious side-effects or withdrawal effects attributed to anti-depressants.

My own understanding of depression is that it is about what ‘has been pressed down’ and is looking to come up. Psychotherapy and psychoanalysis seeks to get behind the depression and identify what qualities of one’s nature have been repressed. Examples of such repression are:

  • physical - seeing oneself as lovable
  • emotional -  expression of certain feelings, such as fear, upset, insecurity
  • sexual – authentic sexual expression
  • intellectual -  expression of one’s limitless intelligence,
  • social – being loved for oneself,
  • behavioural – feeling powerful and independent
  • spiritual -  expression of one’s spiritual nature.

Given that depression is symbolic in nature and represents discovering what lies hidden, it is possible that gardening may well resonate at that deeper metaphorical level for certain individuals who are depressed. If it does, I would expect it to have even greater therapeutic effects than it being seen only in a literal way – as a physical activity.

Metaphors abound in doing the garden:

  • digging deep
  • get to the root of the problem
  • ‘growing’ plants
  • ‘saving’ seeds
  • ‘turning over the sod’
  • ‘enriching’ the soil
  • choosing the ‘right environment’ for a particular plant
  • ‘blossoming’
  • ‘withering’
  • ‘weeding’
  • ‘earthy’
  • ‘feeding’ the plants

In exploring depression ‘digging deep’ and ‘getting to the roots’ of the depression are sensitive and painful explorations but can lead to a ‘blossoming’ of what has long lain hidden. Finding the ‘right environment’ for ‘growth’ is essential, which is largely the unconditional therapeutic relationship and other supportive relationships. Growth – emerging – can be a slow process where many memories are ‘turned over’ and regular ‘feeding’ of (nurturing) and ‘tending to’ the person suffering depression is required. The relationship between the therapist and the person who is feeling depressed needs to be of an ‘enriching’ nature, where ‘seeds’ of love and hope are sown and being earthy (real) is paramount. The ‘withering’ painful story of the person needs to be empathically listened to and an encouragement to ‘weed out’ more and more of his pain is both non-verbally and verbally supported. As the pain is expressed, what has been ‘buried’ slowly but surely emerges into the ‘light’

Finally, Hermann Broch in The Death of Virgil would certainly support gardening as a therapy when he writes: “many instances of earthly beauty ….. a bird song………, a garden, a single flower – all possess the divine faculty of making man hearken into the innermost and outermost boundaries of existence.”

Dr. Tony Humphreys is a clinical psychologist, author, national and international speaker. His book with co-author Helen Ruddle, Relationship, Relationship, Relationship, the Heart of a Mature Society is relevant to today’s article.