Cultivating mental well-being while tackling food insecurity

green 2020

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This article was exclusively written for The European Sting by Ms. Ruth Yan, a graduate-entry medical student at University College Cork (Ireland). She is affiliated to the International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFMSA), cordial partner of The Sting. The opinions expressed in this piece belong strictly to the writer and do not necessarily reflect IFMSA’s view on the topic, nor The European Sting’s one.

‘Quarantine’ has effectively led to a mental health crisis by locking millions of people in their own homes, effectively putting people in a state of anxiety, if not worse. Significant lifestyle changes, and loss of income has compounded the matter. Furthermore, food insecurity has been on the rise, with the average price of food increasing, while food stocks continue to plummet as the world struggles to focus on their own national responses. Individuals are seen hoarding food in their homes – which, while helping an individual short-term, does nothing to alleviate the issue, instead driving food prices higher, depleting stock, and fueling both the food insecurity and mental health crises.

Gardening can be an incredible way for each individual to alleviate the mental health burden – in addition to reliving some of the income and food burden. It’s easy to maintain after its initial stages, and reaps unlimited rewards. It can be shared with neighbors (contactless-ly, of course), encouraging a greener and more productive community. It has been used as a mental health intervention since the early 1800s, resulting in increased mindfulness, better behavioral outcomes in children with ADHD, and a healthier lifestyle [1, 2].

Gardens create a greenspace to enjoy, which researchers have shown to be important for mental wellbeing [3], as humans have an innate need to connect with the natural environment [4].

Adding a few spots of green engages our sensory system by providing tactile feedback and greenery to mimic the ‘natural’ environment [1]. Gardening can be done in backyards, balconies, or windowsills, with anything from vegetable scraps and water, to seeds, soil, and fertilizer. Those with yards can repurpose their lawns for vegetables, herbs, or fruits, while those with limited balcony space can maximize vertical space for green walls and container planting – serving not only to be a feast for the eyes, but our stomachs, too. Even just a window-sill could be useful – re-growing food using food scraps on a ledge with just water and toothpicks is a great start, and something pretty much anyone can do, as long as you occasionally buy fresh vegetables.

Of course, it’s important to start simple – growing greens like lettuce, spinach, or kale means that you can start reaping rewards sooner – leaves can be picked off at your leisure. You’ll see results sooner- before graduating to “harder” vegetables, which may require varied watering schedules, sunlight, or protection.

Gardening teaches us many things. It teaches us to employ our imagination, creative and problem-solving skills in new ways – planning an aesthetic vegetable garden oasis, maximizing produce, or repurposing household ‘trash’ for gardening. It also teaches us mindfulness, by developing care and responsibility for the plant, patience while watching it grow, and physical reward, after as little as 7 days!  As vegetables taste better fresh, it may even encourage us to eat more healthily.

This year, let’s paint our world green, and start simple by growing our food according to our means.

Works Cited

A. A. Adevi, “Supportive nature – and stress: Wellbeing in connection to our inner and outer landscape (Dissertation),” Acta Universitatis agriculturae suciae, 2012.
K. Reid and M. Shields, “Boys and behaviour: Alternative strategies that support boys with ADHD,” TEACH Journal of Christian Education 4.1, NSW, 2010.
J. Barton and M. Rogerson, “The importance of greenspace for mental health,” BJPsych International, vol. 14, no. 4, pp. 79-81, 2017.
J. Clatworthy, J. Hinds and P. M. Camic, “Gardening as a mental health intervention: a review,” Mental Health Review Journal, vol. 18, no. 4, pp. 214-225, 2013.

About the author

Ruth Yan is a graduate-entry medical student at University College Cork (Ireland). She has a Bachelors of Science (Biology & Pharmacology) from McMaster University (Canada), and previously studied at Northwestern University in the Masters of Global Health program. She is currently a Key Correspondence and vice-chair for UCC’s chapter of the Irish Global Health Network. She’s passionate about primary care (GP), access to healthcare and medicine in the resource-limited context, and enjoys travelling, cooking, baking, and playing instruments in her free time.

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