Pittsburgh Mercy turns to nature for therapeutic programs

December 1, 2016


Gardens bloomed this summer and fall at sites throughout Pittsburgh Mercy, as people with intellectual disabilities and behavioral health conditions learned to plant and tend flowers, herbs, fruits and vegetables. The effort extends far beyond new apple trees in a courtyard, or a new herb box in a kitchen.

Pittsburgh Mercy staff developed nature-related programs for groups and individuals. For example, a person with anxiety may work with a group planting a pumpkin patch and get some practice conversing with others in a collaborative environment. An individual with intellectual disabilities might practice new skills, like planting and tending spearmint and peppermint that is then sold to an area gourmet vendor, who uses it in mint ice cream sandwiches.

A community garden planted and maintained as part of Pittsburgh Mercy's nature-related programs.

The approach is strengths-based, recovery-oriented and therapeutic, and aims to promote holistic wellness, healthy lifestyle behavior and community inclusion through gardening, according to Benjamin Bishop. A master gardener with a master's in social work, Bishop runs nature-related programming for Pittsburgh Mercy.

Pittsburgh Mercy is a health and human service nonprofit, serving in the tradition of the Sisters of Mercy and is part of Livonia, Mich.-based Trinity Health. It assists vulnerable populations by providing mental health services, services to people with intellectual disabilities, programs for people experiencing homelessness, faith community nurse training and more, including grants to community organizations.

Pittsburgh Mercy piloted nature-related programming at selected sites in recent years to gauge how it would be received by staff and by people served. In February, the system formally committed to the program as part of its ministry.

Bishop said there's a wide range of benefits for people when they engage with the natural world. Using the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration eight dimensions of wellness, he documents many of these benefits, such as emotional wellness, in which participants cope effectively with life and create satisfying relationships; and environmental wellness, which promotes good health by enabling people to occupy pleasant, stimulating environments that support their well-being.

Reaping benefits
Bishop educates interested Pittsburgh Mercy administrators and clinicians who want to learn more about nature-related programming. People who take part in Pittsburgh Mercy's behavioral health programs or programs for those with intellectual disabilities set goals for themselves. Bishop consults with doctors, nurses and therapists when they ask him to, to determine activities clients might enjoy doing to reach personal goals.

At Pittsburgh Mercy's Garden View Manor, home to 56 adults with severe and persistent mental illness, Bishop worked with administrators and residents eager to try their hand at gardening on the 4.7-acre campus. Together with staff and volunteers, residents designed and planted gardens in 2015. They selected the varieties of flowers, vegetables, fruits and herbs they wanted to grow.

All those who work in the gardens do so voluntarily. They also eat the food they grow, sometimes right off the vine, enjoying that gardener's prerogative.

The bountiful plot that wraps around the kitchen of the Italianate-style building has been dubbed the Garden of Eatin'.

But not everything thrives. Two fig trees didn't survive last winter, and Laurel Spigler, Garden View Manor's supervisor, said she suspected the okra got weeded out by accident. "You make mistakes gardening, and isn't that a metaphor for the rest of life?" Spigler said.

Earthly delights
At its Alternative Training and Employment Center, Pittsburgh Mercy offers a day program for adults 21 and over with intellectual disabilities. The site offers training to ready some participants for a pre-employment program. Forty-six people are part of the day program; about 20 of them are in wheelchairs; some participants need assistance with their basic care, such as help with eating.

Buddy, a 68-year-old resident of Pittsburgh Mercy's Garden View Manor, and Laura Stainbrook, Pittsburgh Mercy's residential director, pick out a pumpkin together at an Oct. 22 harvest festival. Pittsburgh Mercy's nature-related programming includes community events like the harvest festival that are open to the public.
Photos courtesy of Pittsburgh Mercy

Many of the employment center's participants will venture around the block to work in a 20-by-20-foot garden they planted at the City of Pittsburgh Medic 9 and Rescue 1 Station with help from city emergency medical service providers. There are plans to enlarge it next year.

Employment center supervisor Jeff Bisdee said gardening promotes socialization and builds physical skills. He said participants with limited verbal ability helped plant and everyone enjoyed the sensory stimulation of listening to the breeze rustling the leaves and smelling and touching plants. Program participants help tend plantings in window boxes at the center, too. There are plans to install shelving for indoor plants and an aquaponics unit, in which fish supply nutrients for plants grown hydroponically, Bisdee said.

Pittsburgh Mercy funds Bishop's full-time position and picks up some program costs; area organizations have assisted with raw materials, plantings, expertise and volunteers. Bisdee said a plant sale in the spring raised about $500, and gave employment center program participants an opportunity to socialize with plant buyers. Bishop's hope is that within a few years, the facilities will sell enough plants and flowers to make nature-related programing a self-sustaining initiative at Pittsburgh Mercy.

Digging in the dirt
Pittsburgh Mercy does not disclose the full names of people served by its behavioral health and intellectual disabilities programs. One resident at Garden View Manor named Shirley, who sometimes prefers to be called Penelope and who gave her age as about 40, said she finds it interesting to work in the garden and said it makes her happy. "It's beautiful to be able to plant," she said.

DeEster, who attends the day program at the employment center, said she used to live on a farm and likes to get her hands dirty planting in the garden. The 26-year-old enjoys "catching fresh air" and working alongside other people. Employment center staff have cooked up some of the produce for the gardeners. They've tried baked kale. "I hated that," DeEster said. Fried green tomatoes were better received.

Bisdee said he sees a lot of pleasure and pride among clients who cultivate plants. "It just gives a natural purpose, an enjoyment to life," he said.


Copyright © 2016 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.