By Susan Morgan
During the warm season on the picturesque grounds of Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan, Connecticut, Erin Backus, HTR, often leads her patients on guided nature walks to promote mindfulness. These walks are designed to help individuals increase awareness of their surroundings through sensory exploration of nature. The group starts each 45-minute walk with introductions. Group size ranges from one to 15 participants. Backus discusses strategies to increase mindfulness and describes the senses to raise participants’ awareness for the walk experience. Throughout the walk, she periodically encourages group discussion about observations of the outdoor environment. The group walks slowly, and she asks questions like “What are you seeing? hearing? feeling?” To conclude, the group processes through the nature walk. They describe their feelings afterwards, share what they remember from their outdoor experience, and discuss how easy or difficult it was to focus on being more mindful.
About Silver Hill Hospital
In operation since 1931, Silver Hill Hospital is a nonprofit psychiatric hospital that treats adolescents and adults living with a range of psychiatric and addictive disorders, including co-occurring or dual disorders, schizophrenia, borderline personality disorders, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, and chronic pain. They offer in-patient treatment as well as outpatient and transitional living services. (Read more about Silver Hill Hospital here. http://www.silverhillhospital.org/home)
Horticultural Therapy at Silver Hill
As the full-time registered horticultural therapist at Silver Hill, Backus works in all 10 units across multiple buildings, leading group sessions one to four times per unit each week. She regularly connects with other members of the treatment team, including doctors, social workers, her recreational therapist supervisor, residential counselors, and psych technicians, to inform her daily activities. With limited outdoor garden space, horticultural therapy activities primarily range from outdoor container gardening to indoor horticultural projects, including plant propagation and floral arranging. The herb garden outside the men’s transitional living unit provides an outdoor location to engage patients in sensory exploration and physical activity.
Plant propagation activities open up discussions on new beginnings and increasing positivity. For example, during a session on plant propagation, patients propagate coleus cuttings, and as they transplant the cuttings, they label the new container with a behavior they would like to start doing. Or, they plant jade, which represents well wishes, and discuss what they hope for in their new lives.
In addition to periodic group floral arrangement activities across the campus, every Tuesday is individual floral arranging day in the acute care unit. Patients arrange cutflowers, such as carnations, leatherleaf fern, alstroemeria, bear grass, and celosia (when available), in heavy duty plastic or bamboo containers. This activity enables patients to practice choice-making, interpersonal relations, and creative expression in a non-threatening way. Support staff help to monitor for safety and facilitate group discussion. At the end of each session, the group processes their individual experiences. Backus regularly asks, “How was your experience today?” Responses include “relaxing,” “calming,” “great,” and “It was nice to get out of my head for awhile.” Occasionally, a patient expresses negative feelings as a result of the activity or prefers to throw away the flowers at the end. Backus turns this into a conversation, often one on one, to process why he or she did not have a good experience.
About Erin Backus, HTR
Backus has a bachelor of science degree in ornamental horticulture from the State University of New York at Cobleskill, and a horticultural therapy certificate from the Horticultural Therapy Institute and Colorado State University. Before Silver Hill, she was garden program facilitator at Green Chimneys, a school and treatment center for youth with emotional and developmental challenges in Brewster, New York. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling from the University of Buffalo. Backus also owns Plant Happiness, LLC, where she consults on butterfly garden projects and horticultural therapy programs and serves as a local and distance supervisor for horticultural therapy interns.