Ian Edwards: Nature plays big part in the healing arts

As thousands died in the fields of Passchendaele in August 1917, pioneering military doctor William Rivers was treating shell-shocked officers '“ including War Poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon '“ at Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh.

The Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh provide a safe, tranquil green space in which to de-stress and commune with nature

Treatment included getting patients to face rather than forget the trauma they experienced on the battlefield, while keeping body and mind active with plenty of exercise and fresh air.

One hundred years later, veterans of recent conflicts are being treated in Denmark with an innovative nature cure of which Rivers would likely have approved. At an arboretum 30km north of Copenhagen ex-military personnel suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) undergo an eight week course of ‘green therapy’ to help them recover their mental health.

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One day week they immerse themselves in nature, emerging to socialise with others only when they feel ready. Recovery is a gradual process aided by other sessions such as cognitive and horticultural therapy but success rates are high and recurrence less frequent than with conventional PTSD therapies.

Denmark is cold in winter, so a Zen garden, potting shed and kitchen have been constructed inside a massive heated greenhouse. However, the ex-servicemen are more at ease outside even in the snow. Being alone, in raw nature,s the start for most personal journeys.

Research at the University of Copenhagen recognises a relationship between natural diversity and its therapeutic value. This is not surprising; wherever diversity and resilience have been studied, the ability to adapt to change appears to rely on opportunities that are only available within a diverse ecosystem.

Many people claim that time spent in nature relieves stress and is good for their mental health, yet few clinical trials have been carried out. Theories are mostly based on anecdote rather than evidence.

Working at the world’s finest botanic garden for three decades I have heard numerous similar stories. People of mixed ages and backgrounds, who mostly didn’t view the garden as therapy, found through regular visits in relative solitude and immersed in natural sounds, that they gained incremental improvements in their mental state.

There are many reasons why botanic gardens should be valued by people recovering from personal storms. They are safe places and spending an hour or so just sitting on a bench will not raise eyebrows. But what else makes a botanic garden more therapeutic than a municipal park? All botanic gardens pride themselves on their diversity of plants: Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh boasts an amazing 5 per cent of the world’s flora.

So, if there is a relationship between diversity and the therapeutic power of green spaces then botanic gardens can be regarded as ‘super’ greenspaces preventing ill health and promoting well-being in the same way super-foods provide immunity against physical ailments.
Ian Edwards is head of public 
engagement, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. He presents Surviving the Storm at the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas, New Town Theatre, on 20 August.