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How Grief Grew Into Garden Therapy for Teens Green Spaces Used To Improve Mental Health

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Above image credit: A new program aims to teach youth to garden as therapy. (Ji Stribling | Flatland)
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7 minute read

The sky glowed tangerine. Bees circled, cicadas wailed and sunflowers swayed. 

Being in nature like this is a welcome escape for 13-year-old Liberty Williams. 

“I feel like I’m away from the reality of Earth,” Williams says. “The plants, they can’t … be critical towards me. They just gotta sit there. 

“The only thing it’s gonna have a reaction to (is) the wind blowing it.”

Williams has autism. Over the years, her mom LaDonna noticed how her daughter reacted around plants. She found peace.

So much so, that Liberty and LaDonna started a small garden in their backyard. It’s now overrun with tomatoes and strawberries. 

“It was her idea to start the garden but I did the work,” LaDonna laughs. 

Ever the mindful mother, LaDonna looks on as Liberty saunters through the aisles of raised beds. 

“I try to watch her, get her in different environments,” LaDonna says.

The latest venture is a new expressive gardening therapy class led by Kansas City artist Denise Perkins. 

This August summer day is the second class of “Issa Vibe: Mental Wealth for Teens.” 

The monthly class takes place at Kansas City Community Gardens at 6917 Kensington Ave., nestled behind an iron fence across the street from a row of houses. 

At 6:40 p.m., Perkins rallied three teens, two of which are first-timers. 

“Let me show you my garden,” Perkins told the families, adding jokingly. “The tomatoes are really leaning.” 

Classes like these are presented by Convergence Counseling Center, led by longtime social worker Johnessia Jackson. The center uses a holistic approach to treat people with chronic diseases, caregiver fatigue and teens with anxiety and depression.

Perkins knew these conditions well.

On Jan. 29, her father died. She found herself trying to juggle work, her mental wellness, waves of grief and feeling depleted caring for her mother. She was diagnosed with anxiety and depression.  

“Anxiety caused me to (be) go, go, go. No stops. No breaks,” she recalled. “I wasn’t enjoying life.” 

In response, Perkins did something she had never done before. She took a leave of absence from work. 

That extra time allowed her to reflect and identify a new practice inspired by her father, who was a 28-year community gardener. She began by picking a few herbs to plant and headed to Kensington Avenue. 

“I was just kind of rushing through life,” Perkins says.

So, she redirected the pain of loss into gardening. Time slowed down as she turned the soil with her hands, loosening the roots and planting vegetables she hoped to harvest in the fall. 

It was almost a spiritual experience. 

Now, she stops, digs, breathes and works toward healing. She draws a link between the hard work of gardening to life, too.

“We have to cultivate our relationships with our friends and families and loved ones,” she added. 

“The same way you cultivate a garden, you take care of it, you spend time with it.”

She hopes to pass along what she learned to youth, who in the past decade and over the course of the pandemic have experienced worsening mental health crises.

Studies across the globe have shown the benefits of what some in the medical world call “green care.” One Japanese study found people’s physiological responses changed looking at cement versus a green hedge. 

“Viewing plants altered EEG recordings and reduced stress, fear, anger and sadness, as well as reducing blood pressure, pulse rate and muscle tension,” the study read. 

Green spaces have long been lauded for therapeutic benefits by historical figures such as Florence Nightingale. Introducing young folks to the practice of “green care” could help curb the mental health crises medical experts warned about recently.

Rates of anxiety and depression have continued to rise among youth in the United States., according to Mental Health America. So much so, that public health leaders sounded the alarm.

In March, the federal government allotted $35 million to fund grants for mental health crises programming and resources for youth and young adults. 

In Kansas and Missouri, rates of anxiety and depression nearly doubled, according to the most recent Community Health Assessment report by Children’s Mercy

A March 2022 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that worsening rates of mental health among youth, particularly high schoolers, warranted better support systems. 

“Students need our support now more than ever, whether by making sure that their schools are inclusive and safe or by providing opportunities to engage in their communities and be mentored by supportive adults,” concludes Kathleen A. Ethier, Ph.D., director of CDC’s Division of Adolescent and School Health in the report.

New Life 

Perkins serves as that supportive adult for youth like Williams. 

Midway through class, the group had a brief discussion. Perkins had students then write down a recent point of stress or tension they recalled. 

Next, Perkins opened a Barbie-pink box full of rocks. She instructed each student to pick the rock etched with a word that spoke most deeply to them. One of the youngest students, Riyad Ba, 11, picked up a slate-gray rock. 

“I picked strength because I’m strong,” he says and places the rock by his bicep, nodding happily.

The teens trailed behind Perkins. The final step: plant their lettuce, which they’d harvest in a few months. 

“You’re actually planting your stress, your struggles, your anxiety,” Perkins explained. “The plant that sits on top of that, it’s new life.”

The goal is to teach them how to be patient and observe growth.  

That struck Liberty Williams, who struggles to grapple with the violence she sees in the world. She rattled off worries of kids’ lives being cut short, the dreams they could no longer achieve, the families they could no longer have and how deeply she feels about the world around her. 

“Something bad happens, or even like the smallest thing, it can have a big impact on you as an individual,” Williams says. 

Digging into the earth and burying her scribbles on that piece of paper helps young Williams. All she hopes to be is a good person, she says. 

“When I am planting something, I would want the plants to feel at comfort. It may not have like a brain or a heart of its own. … Their heart doesn’t feel some type of melting sensation. It, it’s just a plant. But it’s also a life scientifically as well,” Liberty says, as she looks to the sky. 

She pauses, her lips puckered, and adds: “And I want to, I want to treat that plant with kindness as well.”

Vicky Diaz-Camacho covers community affairs for Kansas City PBS. Ji Stribling is a student at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and a reporting intern at Kansas City PBS.

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