How a Sheffield charity is using gardening to help manage mental health
SAGE uses creative activities and the great outdoors to support adults who are experiencing mental health problems.
Members say taking part in activities at SAGE has helped their physical and mental health.
Katie, 48, who has been a member for a couple of months, said: “Here you feel like you’re worth something, it’s being with like-minded people and not being judged. It’s a supportive space. Getting here is the problem but once I’m here, I don’t want to leave.”
Katie admits that she has ‘learnt a lot’ in terms of looking after vegetables and seeing them grow, she is also hopeful of becoming a volunteer in the future.
71 year old Dot, who joked that she is ‘probably one of the oldest members’, has been going to SAGE for over a year and ‘adores it’.
Dot said: “Within a month of attending, my mood lightened and I started cracking jokes. I have something to get up for. I can put the world to rights here.”
Rita, 72, has been a member since 2012, She said: “I like to come here to meet nice people, to learn things, how to plant. If I stay at home, it makes me upset. Here, I can make SAGE look better.”
SAGE, which stands for Support Arts Gardening Education, was set up in 1999 after a high incidence of mental health problems and a low uptake of the available services in Pitsmoor, following research commissioned by Pitsmoor surgery.
The aim was to provide a service that was non-clinical and non-threatening, while still providing focused, professional support.
It promotes mental and physical well-being to men and women over 18 with mental health issues through Greenfingers, which was set up in 2004.
The project is based on therapeutic horticulture, which has been at the forefront in considering the design of the allotments.
There are sweeping paths with no ends, to ensure individuals don’t feel trapped and a ‘quiet area’ has also been built so members can escape when they want some breathing space away from the group.
There are raised beds that are accessible for wheelchair users and platform beds for those who may prefer to garden standing up or sitting.
Louisa Bruce, service manager at SAGE, believes that the design of the allotment has been important for keeping with the idea that gardening is therapeutic and accessible for all.
She described how gardening can allow people to ‘get away from life’, to improve self-esteem, a chance to have successes, to reduce isolation and is an opportunity for people to interact in everyday conversation.
Louisa believes the positive impact of gardening is evident. She said: “Some have enjoyed it so much, they have ended up renting their own allotments.”
Currently supporting around 50 adults, SAGE helps individuals whether they are suffering from mild or severe mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, panic attacks or PTSD.
The majority of members are in their 40s to 70s and everyone is welcome. SAGE is a member of City of Sanctuary so also works with refugees and asylum seekers.
Louisa believes members who attend sessions are representative of Sheffield, though not of Burngreave, where the Grimesthorpe allotments are based.
Members who attend the weekly sessions are usually referred to SAGE by a health professional, for example, through their GP or social worker.
Groups, no larger than 15, meet every week at the allotments.
Monday’s group caters for women only, while other sessions are open to both men and women.
There is a smaller Wednesday group that provides for more vulnerable adults who require additional physical and mental support.
Members attend sessions at SAGE for three hours, which all follow the same format.
An informal briefing meeting opens the session, where individuals have refreshments and discuss their activities for the day, as well as share information about upcoming events happening in other parts of Sheffield.
Members then get on with their agreed jobs, from gardening related duties such as harvesting produce to other activities such as crafts.
The session end with a group meal cooked using produce from the allotments, with input by both the members and volunteers.
Although gardening is a large part of what SAGE is about, it offers craft activities as well as a singing group, and it also signposts individuals to other organisations.
Yearly summer trips to the coast or regular trips to other more local places of interest are some of the other things that members look forward to.
Members speak of how the environment that SAGE creates makes them feel ‘safe’ and a ‘life saver’ - values which the organisation takes into account when recruiting volunteers.
SAGE prefers to recruit volunteers who can stay for six months or more as it provides stability for the individuals who attend.
The organisation currently has enough volunteers but anyone interested can still express interest for the future.
People with less commitment may still support SAGE through other opportunities via ‘Friends of SAGE’.
For more information about SAGE, see www.SAGEsheffield.org.uk