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Stamner Park is home to a diverse range of people and activities. On my walk to the Centre for Ecotherapy through the park, I came across a group playing ultimate Frisbee, traveller’s caravans, cafes, walking groups and shrubberies. The benefits of being outdoors and reconnecting to nature are limitless. Jess Bayley, director of the Centre for Ecotherapy, and I sat on a bench in the Centre’s allotment and spoke about its role in the lives of the people who work on it.
The Centre for Ecotherapy is a project that recognises the benefits of outdoor work for people with mental health issues. The people who use the Centre carry out social, practical occupational tasks connected to the outdoors, working together on the allotment. The social exclusion that people with mental health problems face can be severe and extremely damaging, so the social element of the group is vital.
Long term health problems can prevent people from being employed for extended periods of time. The group encourages people to try different tasks that need to be done on the Centre’s allotment, from counting seeds to kindling fires, making sure that the person’s needs are always foremost when tackling any task. Essentially, the people come first and the allotment is there to provide therapeutic benefits to those who work on it.
The group was started as a project by an NHS trust in about 2000 and passed from funder to funder, until the Centre for Ecotherapy took it on in 2014. With the contribution of grants from local organisations, the group runs two drop-in sessions a week, alongside a programme of courses and workshops.
The allotment that is cared for by those attending the drop-in sessions grows extensive fruits and vegetables, which those who tend the allotment can take away. This can contribute to nutritional wellbeing, which people with mental ill health may lack. The allotment also has a beautiful willow arbour, open green space and benches creating a nurturing space to be in, allowing people to “decompress”, according to Bayley.
Local organisations such as Brighton and Hove Food Partnership, an ARTS Case-Study initiative, help to refer people who could benefit from social and therapeutic horticulture. This means the group may become embedded in future sign-posting practices of organisations as mental health care grows as a priority within Brighton.
But whilst the future is bright for the Centre, Bayley told me of how the group simply “works for people”. A young man who was affected by very negative mental health came to the centre with the assistance of a social worker. Bayley described how he completely “fell in love” with making the fires that the group sit round to have coffee at. This activity allowed him to concentrate and try something new, and helping him “open up like a flower”. He grew in his self-belief, applied for work and got into employment. Whilst Bayley does not attribute his recovery just to Ecotherapy, having time in nature as an element of his recovery allowed this man, like many others who attend the Centre, to work holistically towards an improved life.
As a new and evolving field, Bayley says ecotherapy can cause “massive life changes”, and the sessions give people “four hours to feel held” in an often disparate and odd city. But the strangeness and creativity of Brighton, and its caring nature, means initiatives like the Centre for Ecotherapy should thrive in the city for years to come.