Connecting with nature and fellow gardeners is helping to provide relief to veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder and other mental health conditions. DVA holds Veterans’ Health Week each year in October, to promote its four key priorities for supporting the health and wellbeing of the veteran and ex-service communities: physical activity, nutrition, social connection and mental wellness. DVA recognises that health promoting activities, while not a substitute for mental health treatment, can be a very helpful adjunct.
Television gardening personality Peter Cundall, who served in the British Army during and after the Second World War and in the Australian Army during the Korean War, has been an ambassador for Veterans’ Health Week since 2012. He runs gardening workshops for members, families and friends of the veteran, service and police communities.
Peter well understands the experiences of these communities and the importance of promoting activities such as gardening for good physical and mental health. He says:
The therapeutic benefits of working with soil and plants are amazing. I’ve found from my own experience as an ex-soldier … that you get extraordinary relief actually from going out into the garden and digging and working the soil and planting.
Gardening is predictable; we know exactly what’s going to happen. We know that when we sow seeds that they’ll be germinating in two or three weeks’ time and that they’re going to grow into plants.
There’s a certainty and a reassurance about gardening, and this is what people need.
Peter holds his workshops at the Veterans’ and Families Garden Plot at the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens in Hobart, as well as Launceston and Wynyard in Tasmania.
Veterans’ gardens have also been set up in other parts of Australia, and more are established each year. Veterans and their families can use the skills that they pick up at Peter’s workshops either at home or at a veterans’ garden.
Peacekeepers’ Veterans Association state president and coordinator of the Veterans’ and Families Garden Plot, Michael Romalis, has been integral to the success of the veterans’ garden in Hobart. Describing the garden, Michael says:
It has three great benefits for the veterans: security, control and confidence.
The veterans feel secure working in the garden with other veterans. This sense of security has been especially helpful for the Afghanistan and Iraqi veterans who come here. They’re able to relax and, in time, they start interacting and talking and sharing their stories and issues. Sometimes their families, the kids, come along too and it brings them together working on the plot.
Whilst in the garden they can manage their surroundings and have a sense of control. This is comforting to someone who has PTSD or other mental health issues.
The predictability of gardening also helps to build their confidence. They know that if they plant a seed then something will grow from it, and that is very rewarding.