As part of Integrated Care in Action week Annabelle Padwick tells her story of how gardening transformed her life and helped her recover from crippling mental health problems to become a professional gardener, wellbeing therapist, children’s author, magazine columnist, motivational speaker and radio personality.
She’s urging GPs to think differently about their approach to mental health and to embrace social prescribing. She will be working with the NAPC in the role of patient adviser and champion as part of our national primary care home faculty and person-centred social prescribing work.
I struggled with my confidence from a very young age. Looking back, I know there were all kinds of issues from my childhood to more recent years that eventually led me to a point of total mental collapse. There was school bullying, severe anxiety, a traumatic relationship breakdown and then a different abusive and toxic relationship. All these events continued to pile up because I never got to actually deal with the underlying causes, paranoia and negative, spiralling thoughts.
When I went to see my GP for help with crippling anxiety and panic attacks he offered me tablets. But I didn’t want medication, I wanted to fix the underlying issues.
The other option I was offered was group cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) sessions which I tried and hated. We were all at different levels in the group – while I was determined to do whatever it took to get better, some of the others couldn’t see a way out, which just dragged me down even further.
When I couldn’t find the help I needed at my local surgery, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I started taking short drives with friends and walks outside, trying to just embrace the panic attacks and gradually increase my time outdoors. Over the next few years of pushing myself, I found my confidence increasing with the more time I spent outside. I got this weird urge to start gardening and growing things. So I moved to a new county, put myself on the allotment waiting list and in the meantime started growing anything and everything, from carrots and tomatoes to giant marrows in containers. As my tiny seeds sprouted into veg I could eat, my confidence sky rocketed with them and I began to feel I could transform my life – just as I’d transformed the seeds with nurture and love.
Fast forward to now being 31 and here I am on a mission to transform people’s lives through the power of gardening and growing their own produce. It worked for me when I was in my darkest place, so I know it can work for many others too.
I’m now developing what I hope will be a UK wide allotment-based support network for adults, accessible through self-referral, GPs, psychiatrists and local councils, to help change lives across the country.
I provide short-term and year-round gardening and wellbeing-based therapy sessions in primary and secondary schools. The aim is to improve children’s and young people’s emotional wellbeing while building resilience. My students have included a 13-year-old girl with anorexia and autism. I was warned she wouldn’t speak to me or anyone else in the group. After working with her for six weeks, she was talking confidently to me and a couple of others in the group.
I know there’s only so much a GP can do during appointments when someone comes to them with a huge range of complex problems. All I ask is that GPs and other primary care professionals make the most of their limited time to find out what services in their local area are available and might benefit their patients, besides the standard medical treatments.
Social prescribing is still in the early stages in my area but I know from personal experience, and the experiences of the young people and adults I work with, that sometimes it’s the non-medical therapies which can work miracles.
During Integrated Care in Action week, I’m urging everyone involved in primary care to think outside the box and work together to find new ways of tackling our mental health epidemic. For me, the answer definitely lies in the garden and my mantra is: “It’s not what you grow, but how YOU grow!”
Annabelle is the founder of Life at No.27, a gardening and wellbeing therapy organisation. She is a qualified physical and mental health first aider and an ambassador for Thrive – a national charity which changes lives through gardening.
- Read more about Annabelle’s projects on her website