Measures to support and promote community gardening should be part of the mental health response to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Dr Pauline Marsh from the University of Tasmania and Dr Jonathan Kingsley from Swinburne University of Technology.
Pauline Marsh and Jonathan Kingsley write:
As a community, we now understand how social distancing and isolation are key strategies to #flattenthecurve of COVID-19 (alongside other important public health tactics). Social distancing has been the strategy of choice to establish behaviours that create physical distance between people to reduce the risk of virus transmission.
Admittedly, it took us some time to understand how we should do this and some people are still confused about what this means or do not have the ability to change their behaviours. The alternative term ‘physical distancing’ provided a clearer directive, and the introduction of rules enforcing isolation (for example, restricting outdoors contact to one other person) made it even clearer: we are to stay home.
As public health researchers and practitioners, we recognise and respect the necessity of physical distancing and isolation interventions during this time. However, now that we are some weeks into our isolation lives, it is a good time to pause and consider the possible unwanted complications of distancing and isolation, and how we might mitigate these.
The two obvious consequences of staying home are decreased opportunities for face-to-face social encounters and access to shared outdoor spaces. These two factors contribute to genuine concerns that isolation may exacerbate other health issues beyond the virus itself, including impacts on mental health.
Somewhat ironically, for many years researchers and practitioners have been championing social inclusion (also called social connectivity, engagement, capital, cohesion or interaction) as a vital mechanism for generating wellbeing and preventing mental, physical and cognitive ill health. This is fundamental in Australia, where one in four people already feel socially isolated and lonely.
Furthermore, it is now well-established that human connection with nature and green spaces can be positive for mental health, drastically alleviating stress, fatigue and anxiety. Indeed, current public health advice includes suggestions to increase opportunities for open spaces and fresh air.
However, heading to the great outdoors during this time has not always allowed for physical distancing, as shown by incidents at Bondi Beach, and can now be a breach of isolation guidelines.
One outdoor activity that can safely connect us with others and with nature is community gardening – gardening collectively in shared public spaces.
If managed correctly, community gardens can not only accommodate physical distancing requirements but also provide opportunities for human contact that is unmediated by a computer screen, and ultimately contribute positively to mental wellbeing.
Community gardening has been suggested to be a health and wellbeing strategy for a number of years now, due to the ideal therapeutic combination of physical activity, healthy eating, company and exposure to nature – plus the enabling of important ecological and civic contributions for community members.
We know from history that that gardens can play a significant part in rebuilding community wellbeing during and after times of crisis (such as the Spanish Flu, World War One and Two and the civil rights movements). Interest in gardening has surged as people look to manage the stress of the current pandemic.
Ensuring community gardens can safely connect people to nature and to each other requires some alterations to current gardening practices in line with public health directives.
Community Gardens Australia has released guidelines which can assist community gardeners with these. Washing hands, using your own gloves, and creating rosters to minimise the number of people working in the garden are some of the easy ways they suggest to keep community gardening safe.
Other measures include maximising access to sunlight and fresh air, providing disinfectants for any shared tools and gardening equipment, and giving written and visual up-to-date instructions on site for gardeners about physical distancing.
We would add to these important practical suggestions some additional elements to enable garden coordinators and volunteer community gardeners to put in place a mental wellbeing strategy, in response to impacts from increased isolation.
The increased demand for mental health support in our communities at this time is being felt in our communal garden spaces. Measures to address this might include liaising with local mental health providers for professional input, collaborating with mental health outreach workers and providing mental health first aid training for volunteers.
These measures will require funding. Currently, most community gardens rely heavily on volunteer labour and operate on small budgets often provided through grants and philanthropy, and this is not ideal.
The national package of measures to support the mental health and wellbeing of Australians during the pandemic provides an ideal opportunity for additional and adequate funding to expand the capacity of community gardens to cultivate mental wellbeing.