In 2010, after working in as mental health nurse in Australia for ten years, I felt jaded and disillusioned. Not by the people I was caring for, but by the system. A system that continues to take a highly medicalised approach, relying on medication, talking therapies and short-term interventions and providing few alternatives.
In search of a more holistic approach, I moved back to the Netherlands to work on a care farm for mental health. This 17-bed mental health unit provides residential and outpatient programs for people with a mental illness, set on a farm. People participating in the program receive all the clinical care you expect from a mental health facility. The difference is that the core of day-to-day life at a care farm is meaningful work and community living.
Care farming is defined as the therapeutic use of farming practices. Care farms utilise the whole or part of a farming property to provide health, social or educational care services through supervised, structured programs of farming-related activities.
Care farming is very popular in Europe, with numbers growing rapidly. There are around 1,100 care farms in the Netherlands, serving around 15,000 participants a year. There is a lot of variety in the type and size of those farms and the client groups they serve. In the United States, care farms are known as therapeutic farm communities. They combine the care farm model with the therapeutic communities approach offering recovery-oriented programs for people with complex mental illness such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression. A great example is Gould Farm. Established in 1913 and set on a 700-acre working farm, it offers a full continuum of care for adults with mental illness who are called ' guests'.
Participation in care farm programs has proven to be particularly beneficial for people living with mental health challenges. A care farm offers a non-clinical, home-like environment that reflects ‘normal’ life and provides opportunities for social interaction, skills-development, and meaningful work.
Work provides a sense of purpose and structure. Physical work promotes wellness and gives the feeling of real accomplishment. On a care farm, people with mental health challenges are given choices and develop a sense of ownership and responsibility for the tasks they do. These activities allow people to learn about themselves, their capabilities, and to develop self-confidence. Working together requires collaboration, prioritisation, and organisation. Care farms are safe places where people can practice being part of a community, in a space where they are not judged, but are accepted and respected. There is recognition that everyone’s contribution matters to the wider care farm community.
While the care farm model operates successfully in a wide range of environments, it shares a natural kinship and rapport with rural and regional communities. For rural Australian communities where access to mental health care can be limited by distance, expense and stigma, care farming offers a place-based solution that engages the local environment, local farming practices and local industry.
I feel we need to change the status quo in our mental health system, and have some bravery in trying new approaches that have proven successful in other parts of the world. I have made it my mission to establish the first residential care farm in Australia that will offer a full continuum of care for people living with mental illness. There is so much research showing us that being with animals, being outdoors and having a connection with nature, results in a reduction of depression, anxiety and stress-related symptoms. Now, more than ever, is a perfect time for change.
For more information see: Care Farming Australia: https://www.facebook.com/carefarmingaustralia
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