Holy Comfort

Gardening as a means to mental health

by Stacy Smith

Clippings in the greenhouse at Holy Comforter Episcopal Church

Like many in her neighborhood, Teresa relies on Holy Comforter Episcopal Church. Yet today, Teresa doesn’t feel like church. She tells Father Mike Tanner, the vicar at Holy Comforter, “Father Mike, I have schizophrenia.” He responds, “What is schizophrenia? You tell me.” She says, “Schizophrenia is hearing voices. It is a mental illness. It hurts.” When he invites her into worship, Teresa says loudly, “Leave me alone. I don’t want to go. Goodbye.” She repeats her “goodbyes” several times, always with an air of great finality.

Since the mid-nineties, about 70% of the worshippers at this mission church in southeast Atlanta are people who live with a diagnosis of a mental illness. They come from group homes for worship and community. When reductions in public funding eliminated many programs for people with mental illness, the parish responded by opening its doors to this underserved population. Today, it provides meals, support, and enrichment activities, such as art and gardening, to almost 100 participants.

Father Mike explains that when the Olympics came to Atlanta, those in the mental health community knew that it would be a stressful time for people with mental illness. They founded Friendship Centers to provide social communities for a population that is mostly isolated, both by their illness itself and by people who stigmatize them. Explaining their philosophy, Father Mike says, “Recovery is not about a cure. Recovery is learning to make the most of yourself and your situation. What we aim to do is introduce people to the notion of recovery, and to give them activities that offer them a sense of self and capability.”

Many of the volunteers find healing by working in the garden. Paul was homeless and suffered from untreated schizophrenia when he came to the Holy Comforter gardens in 2009. He is now one of seven paid gardeners who coordinate a large team of volunteers. “Gardening showed me a lot of patience,” he says. This Sunday, he is cleaning up after a community sale of vegetables, flowers, herbs, shrubs, plants, and their very own hot purple pepper “Holy Smoke.”

The garden is a source of healing and recovery for this at-risk population. “Anything you do with people who have low self-esteem, who have no sense of accomplishment, who have been beat down by health and the system, anything they can do meaningfully with their hands and then see the fruit of it, is an aid to self-esteem,” Father Mike explains. “And the keeping of a discipline is one of the most important features of recovery. Gardening is a boost for their sense of what they can do. It creates an opportunity for community, and it’s very therapeutic.”

Soon, it is time for another Wednesday service, and Teresa again resists coming into church. Tonight her mantra is “Shut up.” She repeats it loudly all the way up the sidewalk and after entering the church. A few minutes later, a church member tells Father Mike, “Teresa is saying, ’I hate Father Mike’ and won’t stop.” Just before the service, he slips into the pew next to Teresa and softly says, “Teresa, I hear that you hate me.” She turns and quickly says, “I love you, Father Mike.” Those nearby hear her and smile as he replies, “I love you, too, Teresa.”

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