Matt Ballard, MSW, MDiv
Program Manager, Farm at Penny Lane, which houses the Center’s innovative mental health recovery programs such as Horticulture Therapy, Brushes with Life Arts program, UNC PAWS and wellness programs.
Many of us who work with psychiatric patients or clients with serious mental illness (SMI) are familiar with overall health outcomes and recovery challenges. According to the National Council for Behavioral Health, individuals with SMI are dying up to 25 years earlier than the general population, with an even greater risk for those living with co-occurring substance use disorders (SUD). These high rates of mortality at an earlier age are due to higher rates of preventable chronic health problems; but we also know that subjective experiences like loneliness (which are often tied to stigma) are correlated with more significant symptoms of depression, anxiety and suicide attempts.
Public health’s research on risk and protective factors show us that someone’s overall health outcomes are determined by much more than consistent psychiatry or medical appointments and medication compliance (as critical as they can be!). A very significant majority of someone’s health outcomes are impacted by factors around whether someone is able to move and exercise or what their healthy food intake and access are. And we cannot exclude the context of where someone lives and whether they also have meaningful relationships. It’s an all-of-the-above approach!
At the Farm at Penny Lane, as part of the Center for Excellence in Community Mental Health, we focus on helping provide options and space for patients and clients to work through new practices or delve deeper in daily activities that focus on their recovery. Much of recovery is about feeling like you have the capacity to be well most of the time, whatever that may look like for you. We encourage people to do this in conjunction with the various psychiatric, therapeutic and medical options available to them, while also acknowledging that complementary therapies or modalities for wellness are also part of an informed, self-directed path of recovery.
The recovery programs offered weekly through the Farm at Penny Lane occur in the form of structured group settings and aim to increase opportunities for those protective factors mentioned earlier. Our group schedule might include yoga and breathing, healthy cooking and expressive therapies, while combining more mainstream evidence-based practices like motivational interviewing and techniques familiar to acceptance and commitment therapy. We also strive to find facilitators with their own lived experience in recovery as peers to offer the various modalities.
These opportunities for meaningful social engagement are important to recovery. When someone discloses a persistent symptom, especially one they’re dealing with immediately in group, it can be healing to receive positive validation from others and therefore boosting self-esteem. Oftentimes these groups use social interaction as a part of and not the focus of the therapeutic process which can lessen the pressure of stigma. Many people also feel their psychiatric experiences isolate and sever their connections with not only other people, but the tangible, somatic experiences that capture meaning in their lives. As a farm or nature-based setting, we value especially the role of horticulture therapy where much of the work of someone’s treatment goals can extend into the garden. Gardens can provide the ability to care and consider others (including plants or animals!) with positive reciprocity and the path of recovery a hopeful one.