Stone by stone

Mention nature therapy and images of tree-hugging or some other New
Age-related activity may spring to mind. And yet activities such as
gardening, horticulture and environmental work have been proven to
increase people’s self-esteem and confidence, helped them to learn
or re-learn skills, and improve their quality of life.

Indeed, for people with drug and alcohol addictions an
environmental restoration project, officially launched in May, is
providing a healthy, active and progressive part of the recovery

As well as restoring the environment, the Phoenix House English
Nature therapy programme, based in county Durham, is also looking
to restore motivation, self-confidence and self-esteem in service
users as they turn their hands to dry stone walling, river
clearance, footpath repair and hedge-laying.

Phoenix House, a national drug and alcohol charity which worked
with over 9,000 people last year, had previously piloted a
programme in the Derbyshire Dales. “Our research shows that service
users who participated in the conservation therapy scheme were
found to be 20 per cent less likely to drop out of drug rehab
treatment,” says chief executive Bill Puddicombe. The results have
been so positive that the project is set to be introduced to five
other of the organisation’s treatment centres around the UK over
the next few years.

One former service user, John Crane, is unequivocal about the
benefits the project brought to his life. He says: “Rebuilding dry
stone walls was enjoyable but it was hard work; however, it was
effort on my own terms – you got out what you put in.”

He continues: “Seeing a job through to its conclusion and doing it
properly was immensely rewarding. After all my years of drug abuse,
where I seldom completed a task, it was reassuring to learn that I
could function as an individual within a team, taking pleasure in
playing my part in constructing walls, which will still be there in
300 years.”

The programme is a unique partnership with English Nature, the
government environment agency that manages the country’s 215
national nature reserves covering 89,917 hectares. “Nature is
beautiful, fascinating and challenging and contact with it can be a
powerful way to bring about individual change,” says development
manager, Dave Stone. “The success of this programme also shows that
our organisations have made a real difference to people’s lives by
working together – it’s been an all-round winner.”

He says that Phoenix House clients receive therapeutic benefits
that help them with their recovery, also the environment and
wildlife benefit from the work that the project’s clients do.

“Meanwhile, local communities and visitors to our national nature
reserves are enjoying better access, facilities and contact with
nature. We hope that others will be encouraged to see the natural
environment as a resource that can help deliver their goals for

Another winner is Francis Brown* a service user at
Phoenix House’s Tyneside rehabilitation centre. “It’s good for
personal development and helps as a bonding exercise for everyone
involved,” he says. “Also, the local community are in a position to
see people giving something to society as a whole, helping us all
gain confidence. It’s a bridge-building exercise between ourselves
and the community.”

The physical side also promotes better mental health. This is
important as many people with mental health problems, for a variety
of reasons, experience poor general health. This may be because
simply living with a mental health problem can increase a person’s
stress levels or there may be a lack of motivation to take care of
oneself. But a healthy body can mean a healthy mind.

“Getting involved with a programme like this has helped immensely
with my rehabilitation,” says Stewart Long*, a
service user at Phoenix House’s Sheffield centre. “It has given me
other outlets for my emotions and feelings of joy and anger: the
joy of completing tasks and putting your stress and anger into
physical activities.”

* Not their real names.

Lessons learned

  • Working with partners who are not automatically associated with
    social care helps bring a freshness of approach and a willingness
    to try out innovative ideas. Also being “outside” the usual
    partners, they don’t tend to wait for things to happen and this
    helps to really move things along.
  • The nature restoration work is physical and outside. Both these
    elements have a strong therapeutic impact on the mental health of
    service users. They are not stuck indoors,  not motivated and
    feeling bored. Their bodies are active and this, in turn, activates
    the mind helping bring a sense of purpose and achievement to their
    everyday lives.
  • Take time to pilot the projects and trust the qualitative
    aspect of your evaluations as well as the more usual quantitative

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