Naughty Chickens Help People with Mental Health Problems in London

Autism, Complex PTSD, Depression - all alleviated

Naughty Chickens Help People with Mental Health Problems in London

Sydenham Garden in Southeast London is a community garden with a flock of 12 hens, all adopted from the British Hen Welfare Trust. The garden was created on a neglected part of a nature reserve. Scrub and rubbish were cleared, and the community garden was laid out in 2005, specifically designed to exist in harmony with the wildlife, and the rest of the nature reserve, and to promote biodiversity.

A walled Victorian garden was restored with raised beds, herbs, and flowers. It was officially opened in April 2006. Then in 2011, a resource center opened as a hub for activities and administration.

Today, the garden is a valued community resource, with a specific aim to promote the physical and mental well-being of residents living in South London. The garden is used for therapy and rehabilitation, education, creative expression, and to protect the environment through eco-friendly gardening methods.

David Lloyd is the Coordinator of the ‘Growing Lives’ project, which sets up sessions for adults with mental health problems and children with autism. The beneficiaries visit to grow flowers, cultivate food, and care for the hens.

David explains why there was a need for a community garden: “Our founders were a GP (doctor) and his wife. He was the mental health lead for his practice and kept having people coming back to him with long-term mental health problems. They’d tried medication and therapy; neither had helped. He spoke to them and found they weren’t doing anything with their days, so they were suffering from social isolation and lack of meaningful activity – all the stuff that gives people a sense of self and a sense of pride.

“So they set up a small gardening club, acquired land, and got staff teams together. The project developed into what we have now.”

Today, Sydenham Garden welcomes a mental health group three times a week. “We don’t have anyone in crisis attend, because we don’t have the expertise to deal with that,” David explains. “But we have a diverse range of people coming along. They’re experiencing anything from low mood to schizophrenia, personality disorder, bipolar, depression, or anxiety.

“As long as we feel it’s safe and helpful for them, we’re happy for people to attend, whatever their challenges. We monitor their mood and physical health using clinical questionnaires and the majority of them report a significant improvement in their mental health and wellbeing.”

The many benefits of the garden

The sessions enable people to learn new skills, gain qualifications, and build self-esteem. By growing food to eat, they improve their diet, and by enjoying social experiences and connecting will nature, they feel more positive and have a happier outlook.

The chickens are a big part of the enjoyment. They can be naughty as they do have a habit of eating the flowers, which are supposed to be sold to raise funds, but they’re forgiven because they bring such delight to the garden.

Non-verbal children with autism will chatter away to the chickens in a way they just can’t with people.

Helping people with Complex PTSD

The charity also works with asylum seekers and immigrants, and a lot of them with rural backgrounds can relate to the chickens because they used to have chickens back home.

“The asylum seekers we help have all been tortured and are suffering from Complex PTSD,” David explains. “They work in collaboration with a psychiatrist and use clinical tools and skills to deal with trauma.

“They all come from Sri Lanka where a terrible civil war has been raging for decades. They’re a long way from home and family, and unable to work because of government restrictions, so they don’t get normal validation. We give them big building projects, set them a goal, and let them work out how to do it. There’s a great sense of camaraderie on those projects.”

Sydenham Garden’s chickens!

Today’s chickens aren’t the original chickens that the team rescued when they took in their first flock from the British Hen Welfare Trust.

“They got old and passed away,” says David. “We get new chickens when the numbers in the flock get low. We always get them from the British Hen Welfare Trust because it aligns with our values of providing sanctuary for people – or chickens – and giving them a second chance.

“They’re very cheeky. They get involved in everything we do in the garden. They’re friendly and scratch the ground around where we’re working. They eat the plants we’re planting, but they’re forgiven because they’re part of the gang. I love them all equally!”

The chickens provide a lot of benefits to the people who come to the garden to relax and enjoy the activities. “They’re really good for everyone taking part,” says David. “They’re soothing; they calm people down and reduce anxiety. They get people engaged in projects and provide a distraction from their troubles. They’re also sweet and cheeky. People find it easy to bond with them.”

Helping Autistic Kids

“For kids with autism the chickens are particularly valuable – the children find it easier to form relationships with animals than with people. The hens are engaging, and calming, and they make life more interesting.

“Non-verbal children with autism will talk to the chickens. They’ll arrive here uncommunicative, then come to life when they see the chickens and get all animated, chattering away.”

The hens have an educational value too – they teach people where their food comes from and about animal welfare. They eat pests, providing a service to the garden’s policy of sustainable agriculture, and they obviously provide the gardeners with eggs. They really are an important part of the Sydenham Garden team!

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