EDUCATING ~ CONNECTING ~ ENGAGING ~ NURTURING ~ REVITALIZING ~ COLLABORATING ~ INSPIRING
By Benjamin P. Bishop, LMSW
Advances in social and scientific understanding have, over time, led to changes in how mental illness is perceived and treated today. Once regulated to large institutional settings the vast majority of people suffering with severe mental illness now receive services in more urban community-based settings. Within the current continuum of service delivery, however, there is a greater likelihood for this group to experience a diverse set of medical treatments, therapeutic interventions, residential locations and treatment settings.
In addition to such programmatic changes there can also be dramatic changes to their social supports, social networks and social standing. The effort to continually acclimate to an ever-changing system of continuity can generate a fragmented treatment experience, and can result in symptom escalation, increased internal and/or external stigma, and ultimately further social exclusion. The current system of behavioral healthcare in the United States can therefore inherently keep people from improved recovery outcomes and a sense of belonging with and within the communities that they are rightfully a part.
Nature-based therapies are being recognized as worthwhile auxiliaries to conventional behavioral health treatments by providing holistic, person-centered care through both passive and active participation. Nature-based interventions deliver multi-dimensional sets of concurrent social and therapeutic benefits, are a significant resource for public health, and appropriate for all people across the life span and diagnostic presentations. Yet, within the United States behavioral healthcare system the application of such effective and meaningful interventions remains unstructured and somewhat marginalized and there is a need to unite the levels of care in order to improve social and therapeutic outcomes.
It is for these reasons that I have been leading an effort to increase the use of Nature in behavioral healthcare in order to achieve greater social and therapeutic outcomes for people served. Using historical and contemporary knowledge, I developed Nature-Related ProgrammingTM (NRP) as an innovative service model to create a consistency-of-care throughout the continuum of behavioral healthcare. Working with people served, other professionals and the community alike, the primary goal of the program is to generate opportunities and facilitate partnerships to improve individual and community capacities that lead to authentic social integration outcomes.
To be certain, it has taken over eight years of program pilots throughout the various levels of behavioral healthcare to prove these claims. However, by consistently demonstrating successful outcomes throughout the continuum of care, working with interdisciplinary teams of people to engage people served in and with other community stakeholders, and with the development of a business-oriented service model the program is becoming a more widely accepted intervention in Western Pennsylvania.
To educate other social service professionals on the subject I wrote an article detailing the fundamental components for the program’s development —“Nature for Mental Health and Social Inclusion,” Disability Studies Quarterly, January 2013. Additionally, the NRP model was recently presented at the 2015 American Horticultural Therapy Association (AHTA) conference and will be presented at National Council for Behavioral Health conference in 2016. However, it has been through my facilitation of related accredited professional training courses and guest lecturing graduate and post-graduate students that the program has been able to reach a wider audience and support. Recently Pittsburgh Mercy Health System (www.pmhs.org), a social healthcare organization in Western Pennsylvania, has elected to further program development starting this year.
Through collaborative efforts and support from people served, agency employees, and community members, such as The Penn State Center Allegheny County Master Gardeners, Nature-Related ProgrammingTM is advancing its scope and reach. An interdisciplinary, interdepartmental team from Pittsburgh Mercy Health System is working with people served to expand the availability of NRP to other sites with and in the wider community. Although horticultural therapy professionals are not currently employed, the organization is a member of AHTA and I (just recently) became a member of the Mid-Atlantic Horticultural Therapy Network. Nevertheless, I welcome the opportunity to have an open dialogue with anyone to work together and improve the world we live in through the use of Nature.
To learn more about Nature-Related ProgrammingTM please contact me at BBishop@pmhs.org and connect with me on LinkedIn.