Horticultural Therapy can help with student suicides issue in Hong Kong
In a garden of various plants, colorful flowers with sounds from a waterfall and chirping birds, a group of six students with depression are sitting at a round, wheelchair-accessible table touching their newly grown plants, listening to the therapist’s instruction with a smile on everyone’s face.
It’s more than just gardening. It’s called Horticultural Therapy that becomes increasingly popular in Hong Kong, said the Hong Kong Registered Horticultural Therapist Tam Sau-han.
“Students nowadays face lots of stress and are more fragile,” said Ms Tam, the General Affair Director of Hong Kong Association of Therapeutic Horticulture, “The therapy can help with their mental health problems and alleviate their stress and depression.”
Since the start of academic year in September, up to 23 students have committed suicides in Hong Kong, which was much more than the past years, according to the University of Hong Kong’s Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention.
A Committee on Prevention of Student Suicides has been established by the government to examine the reasons of suicides and find appropriate preventive measures.
Research find the therapy engaging people in plant-based activities can treat developmental disabilities and mental illness such as depression and stress-related diseases, said Dr. Tong Wang-chi, a Honorary Consultant of Hong Kong Association of Therapeutic Horticulture.
“Many people committed suicides because of the feeling of worthless”, said Dr. Tong, who is also a counseling psychologist of Adventist Hospital. He said the plants are a medium of treatment, which can make people regain self-worth.
Ms Tam said the advantage of plants over other mediums such as music was that plants were alive. “The clients feel they are responsible for a life,” she said.
Ms Tam also mentioned an “attention restoration theory” claiming that people can concentrate better after spending time in nature, or even looking at scenes of nature.
“Only in this one-hour therapy will I forget all the unhappy things,” said Wong Pui Shan, who has already attended six therapy lessons.
“But the therapy is not only about growing plants, therapists also play a very important role”, said the experienced therapists Ms Tam.
Horticultural therapists plan several days ahead setting tasks according to the abilities and physical and mental needs of individual clients. During the treatment, they will use assessment methods to record, monitor and evaluate individual achievements.
“The key principle is people-oriented treatment,” Ms Tam said. “It doesn’t matter whether the plants grow well or not. What matters is how people can learn from the life and death.”
As for the treatment effect, Ms Tam said the changes were obvious among many participants. “A student who lacked a sense of security and seldom talked to people at first gradually started to greet and talk to people after a period of treatment”, she said.
“A particular advantage of the plant is they never judge,” she said. “It will never talk back or condemn you.”
Ms Tam said some students with depression or anxieties were very sensitive to other people’s words. Plants will be a moderate treatment to help them gain connections and re-establish trust.
Ho Kai-pong, a Project Officer and therapist of Serene Oasis, a local Horticultural Therapy centre said another advantage was people who were not willing to see the doctor for their mental problems were not very resistant to this method.
“Because people will think it is only growing plants,” he said. “For some people, if they find it is a therapy, they will just walk away because they don’t think they’re ill.”
“Another good feature of horticultural therapy is it requires people’s involvement”, said Dr. Tong. “When people put their time and efforts into something, they will take it more seriously and attach importance to it.”
However, the therapy also has its shortcomings. Dr. Tong said the most obvious one was it would only be effective for people not resisting growing plants.
“We find the effect was not very well for those who didn’t like plants,” said veteran therapists Mr Ho. “Because they will not pay attention to the plants and are not willing to think the meanings behind the activities.”
“Another thing is the therapy is limited to its requirements, such as plants and a garden, while in the traditional psychological therapy, all the patient needs is a psychotherapist”, said Dr. Tong.
He added that different from the traditional one with clear and strict procedure of treatment, whether the effect of horticultural therapy would last after withdrawal from it was not clear.
Nevertheless, Dr. Tong said the horticultural therapy as an adjunctive therapy is a great tool to reduce the stress and anxiety of students, and many schools has already exposed their students more to this therapy to help with their mental health.
“The horticultural therapy is quite popular now,” said Mr Ho at the Serene Oasis, a 7,000-square-feet garden with over 60 plant species, “Our place is always full of people. Many schools are bringing their students here.”
Ms Tam also said the therapy became popular, although the salary of therapists remains not high. But she never regrets resigning a better-paid job for being a full-time horticultural therapist.
“There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing the smiles on those depressed students’ faces,” she said.