Without Growing Well, I wouldn’t be alive.

2nd May 2019

Imagine thinking about taking your last breath because you think you can’t carry on anymore. Imagine finding the support to stop those thoughts.

Mental health is often not talked about because people find it difficult. There’s around 34,000 Cumbrians living with depression and more than 70,000 people in the county have a mental health illness.

One charity in Kendal uses gardening to help people overcome anxiety and depression – planting little seeds of hope in people, and just like the plants, watching them blossom.

Sylvie thought she couldn’t carry on anymore, but then she found Growing Well and she found herself again.

The charity was set up in 2004 on a farm on the outskirts of Kendal. It provides a safe, supportive working environment to nurture mental health recovery. It works with people on a weekly basis, sometimes over years, to help rebuild a sense of purpose, to engage in meaningful and fulfilling activity and to build hope for the future.

Since 2012, Growing Well has received more than £58,000 in grants from Cumbria Community Foundation.

Before Sylvie found Growing Well, she was really poorly. She felt extremely anxious and depressed and had a psychotic breakdown, twice attempting to end her own life. She thought life wasn’t worth living and found herself in hospital for five months, detained under the Mental Health Act.

When she was well enough to be discharged from hospital, Sylvie was still too anxious to leave the house. She remembers feeling scared about seeing anyone who knew her and felt a huge amount of shame about her illness. She didn’t leave the house for a year.

The Community Mental Health Team referred her to Growing Well. Sylvie said: “I took a few months to feel settled, but the knowledge and support of the staff was great and being with other people, who’d gone through similar experiences, helped me to feel safe.”

Before her breakdown, Sylvie worked in a shop, but she hadn’t worked for two and a half years and believed she would never be able to work again. Leaving the house to go shopping on her own felt impossible, and she felt overwhelmed at the thought of working and interacting with people. But, with the encouragement of her family, staff and other volunteers, Sylvie took part in Growing Well’s Return to Work programme. She says this was really challenging; “It was the first time I’d spoken openly in a group about my experiences and feelings, but it felt like a weight was lifted from me.” Sylvie was also offered six months support from an NHS psychologist. These experiences helped her to see that she wasn’t a bad person; she was a person who bad things had happened to.

Sylvie was offered a part-time job by the manager of a local shop, who had known her from her previous working life. Sylvie says that at first she felt terrified but with the support of her family and Growing Well, she decided to give it a go. She says she’s loving being back at work. She has developed great relationships with her colleagues and customers and feels proud of how far she’s come. “I’m enjoying work, I’m feeling calm and relaxed and I’ve learned I can do my best without getting stressed.”

Sylvie says that without Growing Well she doesn’t think she’d still be alive. She thinks of Growing Well as a ‘second family’. Her next goal is to visit her elderly parents who live abroad – something that felt impossible six months ago. She says her life has been transformed: “My only regret is that I wish I’d come to Growing Well sooner.”

Growing Well’s service users are known as volunteers and up to 20 people a day take part in activities, from working in the fields cultivating and picking crops to preparing lunch and working in the office. Everyone gets support and advice on how to deal with their mental health issues. They also have the opportunity to study for horticultural qualifications.

Sarah started at Growing Well as a volunteer after having a nervous breakdown and suffering with anxiety and depression. She said: “I’d completed 23 years as a medic in the Royal Air Force and six years as an Occupational Health Practice Manager. I was under the care of my GP and the Community Mental Health Team when I was referred to Growing Well as part of my rehabilitation. Initially I was very withdrawn and didn’t want to socialise or speak with anyone.

“I worked half a day in horticulture and half a day in catering. Gradually I ended up doing a full day in catering and undertook my level two certificate in Food Hygiene and First Aid Certificate. I was put forward to undertake the first Return to Work Course on site which was very challenging, but helped me recognise what I needed to do to look after my own health and wellbeing.”

Following the course, Sarah offered to help mentor fellow catering volunteers and also worked a day on her own, cooking lunch for 28 volunteers and staff.

When the Catering Coordinator role became available at Growing Well, despite having no formal catering qualifications, Sarah applied for the role and got the job. Sarah said: “I’m still dumbfounded to this day that I have managed to find another career and a job that I love as well as supporting other volunteers with their journey to recovery.”

Fiona joined Growing Well as a volunteer after not working for a year, she said: “I had heard about Growing Well a couple of years previously while working in the charitable sector and thought the concept sounded amazing, I didn’t at that time think it was somewhere that would have such a profound impact on my life.

“As soon as I stepped on site I felt a sense of order and calm and although I was nervous about lots of things, my lack of gardening knowledge, the mud, volunteering for a mental health project. I needn’t have worried, very quickly I felt very attached to the project.  I enjoyed the physical aspect of the work and the structure to the day.  The staff were lovely, very positive and friendly and very quickly I felt I was getting ‘me’ back. I was gently encouraged to make decisions and my confidence started to come back, I really looked forward to every day I volunteered.

“I signed up to do the level two Horticulture course and within a few months I felt ready to go back to work and started applying for jobs. I have a new job and give all the credit to Growing Well. I made friends at the project that I will have for life and I know that if my mental health wobbles at any time, I can go back and volunteer, no questions asked, that is a wonderful safety net, one which I hope I won’t need, but reassuring to know it is there.”