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“I hated spending time outside as a kid – now, it helps me to cope”

Written by Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and work. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time. You can find her on Twitter at @laurenjanegeall.

As new research from the mental health charity Mind reveals that almost two-thirds (63%) of UK adults believe spending time gardening or in nature helps their mental health, Stylist speaks to one young woman about the transformative impact being outside has had on her life. 

Warning: this article contains references to sexual abuse and suicide.

The mental health benefits of spending time in nature are well-documented, but for 24-year-old Alice Mitchell, the effect has been life-changing. Having struggled with her mental health since she was a child, she found spending time outside really helped her – a realisation that translated into a love of gardening when she bought her first house with her partner during the pandemic.

Now, she’s partnered with the mental health charity Mind to share her story – culminating in a garden at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show. After sharing her experiences with the garden’s designer, Andy Sturgeon, earlier this year and helping to shape his plans, Mitchell got the chance to attend the show this week and see how the garden they’d discussed had come to life. 

Here, she speaks openly about how her mental health journey and how spending time around plants came to play such an essential role in maintaining her wellbeing. 

“As long as I can remember, I’ve struggled with my mental health in one way or another. I suffered sexual abuse for a long time during my childhood, and that led to a lot of other issues as I got older. Once I reached my teens, I started to struggle with binge eating. I also developed anorexia and suffered with very low self-esteem and feelings of loneliness and worthlessness, before being diagnosed with depression, OCD and PTSD. Eventually, I began self-harming and developed suicidal tendencies, which led me to make a number of suicide attempts. Luckily, I didn’t succeed.

“I was about 14 or 15 when I finally admitted that I had a problem and needed help. Before I reached out, I always thought I was in control of what was going on, and no one really noticed what was happening until I was in the grips of my anorexia. At that point, however, I’d been struggling for quite some time and things had become really, really serious.  

“When I first started getting professional help, it was a very different system with a very different view of mental health compared to what we have now. I really didn’t get on with the help that was offered and ended up having to seek private treatment, but that didn’t help either. They weren’t focused on looking after my mental health; they were focused solely on my physical weight and tried to ship me off to a clinic 100 miles away from any friends or family.

“If anything, the whole experience made me worse – and that really put me off treatment for the longest time. When I relapsed in 2017 and I was in a terrible, terrible place, I was really reluctant to get help. In the end, I got to the point where I made myself go to hospital because I couldn’t trust myself to be alone and keep myself safe. That whole experience was awful. I sat alone in A&E for 23 hours; nobody knew I was there let alone what I was there for. I was freezing cold, and by the time I did get to speak to a medical professional (for a grand total of five minutes), I was told to get on antidepressants before being discharged miles away from home. 

“I felt at a complete loss when I got out of hospital, but my experience also helped me to realise that no one was going to help me unless I helped myself. Luckily, there was a very small independent treatment group at the time that was just starting called Open Dialogue, and my experience with it was fantastic. It was the first time professional treatment had really helped me, and that began to restore my faith in mental health services and helped me turn a corner.

“After my relapse, I began to discover gardening. When I was younger, I hated being outside, but as I got older and progressed into my early teens, I started to use walking as a way to cope with everything that was going on. I’d walk for hours and hours in this wood behind my parents’ house and lose track of time; I’d listen to the breeze and the birds, and watching the world around me would calm me down at times when I thought I couldn’t and bring me back to reality. 

Alice alongside Andy Sturgeon and fellow nature lover Faris Khalifa in the Mind garden at Chelsea.

“From that point, nature became a kind of safe space. And so, when my partner and I bought our own home in October 2020, we took pride in our garden – we don’t have much space but we built a little veggie patch and planted different plants. Just being outside in the fresh air and getting some exercise and looking at the colours has made a truly invaluable difference; I can’t give it enough credit for what it has done. It’s something I never expected – but it means a lot to me.

“Of course, I’d always known about the benefits of being outdoors in nature, but it never quite hit home how much it can do for you. I think the best bit about it is spending time in an open space – when you’re inside four walls and staring at a screen it can make you feel very trapped, but when you’re outside and surrounded by lots of colours and smells you feel really free. I think everyone takes something different from nature though, which is what’s so fantastic about it. 

“Nowadays, gardening plays a prominent role in maintaining my mental health. In addition to my garden, I have a growing collection of houseplants – the swiss cheese plant or monstera is my absolute favourite.

“Gardening and being around nature isn’t the only thing that helps me, however. I also make sure to repeat a constant mantra to myself: while it’s very easy to get engrossed in things like my job, nothing is more important than my wellbeing.

“As such, I try to make time for things that I love to do – I recently started a dance class again, and I look forward to it every week. That, coupled with going for walks with my dogs, spending time with my partner and friends, playing music, taking time for myself and spending time outside, helps to keep me steady. I’ve been on medication before and I’m certainly not against taking it again, but I’m not on it at the moment and I don’t think I need to be.

“I’m doing OK, and at the moment I’m really trying to appreciate my life and everything I have in it. I’m confident in myself, I’m learning to love myself and I love the things that I have in my life. There’s definitely no easy fix for good mental health – but finding things that help has given me the chance to build myself up slowly and surely over the last 10 years.”

You can call Mind’s Infoline on 0300 123 3393 or visit mind.org.uk for more information and support about mental health. 

Images: Getty/Rebekah Kennington for Mind

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