For the past five years, Jacqui Mehring has worked full time as an activity and horticultural therapist in a Behavioral Medicine Unit at Cone Health Systems (formerly Alamance Regional Medical Center/ ARMC) in Bullington, North Carolina. The 25 patients in the unit are in crisis. Most of the time, the police or their family have brought them there because they are a danger to themselves or to others. They are suicidal, homicidal or dealing with an acute drug/alcohol problem before heading to a rehab program. They never stay more than four or five days though some of them will sometimes return. When they do, they always remember what they planted in the garden.
After she was hired, Mehring started transforming a concrete courtyard with a basketball hoop and not much else into a healing garden where she leads activities with the patients. Since the hospital merged with another big hospital that was in turn bought out by an even bigger hospital conglomerate, the rules have gotten stricter. Security guards and cameras are now part of the daily routine. And the future is uncertain. But the garden is blooming. “I have been adding to the landscaping thanks to donations from various sources and I now have a retired volunteer to help me maintain the garden. But it is getting harder to do stuff outside with the patients. I can no longer go out without a nursing aid and the patients can’t use tools or hoses because of the danger.” Patients in the unit suffer from various mental conditions ranging from schizophrenia to depression and dementia. They often have accident-related physical problems, which might have led them into addiction to painkillers. Many have a history of sexual or physical abuse.
“Their rooms are empty because of the risk of suicide. The walls are white and there is only a bed on the floor. In the garden, there are colors and life. It is a normal environment, like a garden at home,” she explains. As a matter of fact before Mehring created the garden, taking the patients outside used to be a tense experience because they would become hostile and talk about escaping beyond the high walls. “With the healing garden, they want to go out and they are no longer aggressive, angry or violent. In the morning, I will take out the patients who are low-functioning and can’t attend other activities. In the afternoon, anybody can come. We plants things, we do flower arrangements and dried flowers, we pull weeds or collect seeds. I have raised beds for the patients with physical problems.”
A textile designer by trade, Mehring who is Scottish first worked as an activity therapist with arts and craft projects before getting trained as a horticultural therapist at HTI. As an artist who leads art workshops with the same patients and others, she feels the garden is special. “Art can be intimidating, one can feel untalented. In the garden, there is no threat and people start talking. Patients will often talk more freely. They will tell me “I feel free outside”,” she says.
Mehring got involved in a healing garden being built at the cancer center within the hospital on a $3 million budget collected through fundraising. “I helped chose the plants for the raised beds and I have made proposals to lead horticultural therapy activities. After spending all this money, they have no plans for the maintenance. It looks pretty and relaxing, but they don’t realize that it could be a great tool.” In fact, even though the new hospital president visited her garden on her invitation, Mehring does not feel that horticultural therapy is recognized. “I did a survey. The doctors are positive about the garden, but they don’t come out. The nurses will come out to enjoy the garden and to socialize with the patients. With the landscape, we have transformed the environment and the atmosphere. But I can’t prove it is the garden.” To recharge, Mehring can rely on the Carolinas Horticultural Therapy Network’s meetings held twice a year.