Farm Therapy Comes to NH

Nov 29, 2011

, Treating mental illness can take many forms. There are drugs, group therapy, and art therapy and the list goes on.

A new program in the Concord area is getting promising results by taking clients to a typical New England farm.

Mental health care doesn’t just take place in sterile offices or on therapists’ couches.

Some of the real breakthroughs happen out in the real world.

A new program in the Concord area is getting clients out to a local farm.

Since last spring, clients from Riverbend Community Mental Health have been trekking to a local farm for therapy sessions.

But this therapy doesn’t look like what you might expect.

SFX: Horse snorting, walking in leaves.

This is Gail.

The clients asked that we use only their first names

SEB: Who you walkin’ here?

Gail: This is Sam. (SEB: That’s my name too!) It is! This is amazing!

Sam is one of the farm’s Arabian horses.

He’s around 16-years-old, and has a bit of a bad leg.

Gail leads him along through ankle-deep, dry leaves.

She and the other clients have just finished feeding the pigs, and now are taking four horses to a field.

Twice a week, Riverbend clients volunteer to help out on the Owen Farm in Hopkinton.

Doing farm chores may sound like work, but the participants in this program don’t seem to mind.

SEB: What’s your favorite job?

Here’s Alan.

Alan: probably takin’ care of the chickens.

SEB: Why’s that

Alan: Well they produce so many eggs. There’s a pleasure to reaching under their warm bodies on a cold day like today.

The chores engage these people on many levels.

Emily Cook is the caseworker who has been accompanying the clients since the program began.

She says it helps participants learn skills they need to take part in the real world

Cook: To get them outside, to expand their comfort zone, and work with other people and share in a really different environment than they’ve been in, but also a really normal everyday environment.

Part of what makes this work is the attitudes of the farm owners.

Ruth Owen says she and her husband Derek have a history of welcoming strangers into their home.

Ruth: it’s as though we have this sign out that says if you need help [chuckling] you can come, you can stay for awhile, you can help us out and we’ll help you out. It’s just been that way ever since we’ve been here.

Derek Owen says on the whole, the Riverbend clients have been more help than hassle.

Derek: you can’t get some things done as quickly because obviously you have to teach somebody else how to do it and they may not be a fast learner, but most of the time they’re quite willing, and that’s half the battle.

While good hosts are key, the friendliness of the Owens is not the only reason this program is has been successful.

Louis Josephson, CEO of Riverbend Mental Health, says these types of programs are simply a good idea.

He says they are booming in Europe.

Josephson: The Europeans have actually done controlled studies that show that people with serious mental illness who are working around farm animals and are part of these green projects, actually their symptoms reduce, and their quality of life improves.

When you talk to the participants this isn’t a surprise.

Rebecca has made great strides at the farm.

When she first started she was too timid to speak, but now she’ll talk even with a microphone pointed at her.

Rebecca: I really value coming here because I have trouble finding places where I feel comfortable, and this is a totally not competitive and accepting place.

A participant who we already heard from, Alan, likes that there’s always something to do at the farm.

Alan: it’s comfortable, it’s not like the real world where there’s no order, there’s no structure, and you just get thrown to the wolves.

The program is still very new and very small.

At its peak in the summer, there were about a dozen clients.

On a typical day about half that many turn out.

But Louis Josephson hopes to broaden and deepen it.

Josephson: Where I’d really like to see this go is to have this be true employment where we pay people a living wage for their time on the farm. I think we could set up a farm-stand in Concord or another community, sell a lot of the stuff we produce.

If Josephson’s dream comes true, Ruth Owen says, it might be a case of back to the future.

Ruth: At one time the state hospital had a dairy farm, a piggery, greenhouses, gardens, and the people who where there helped maintain those things and helped work there, and it gave them a sense of purpose.

Purpose is what it’s all about.

When it comes down to it, the Riverbend clients are people, who happen to have a mental illness.

And to get up in the morning they need these things – work, structure, purpose – just like anybody else.