MISSISSIPPI STATE -- The most commonly known people-plant connections are food and oxygen, but the use of plants to help individuals with mental illnesses goes back several hundred years.
Two Mississippi State University employees have teamed up to teach a graduate-level course this summer exploring the people-plant connection as a therapy tool. The 10-week class is offered at MSU's Meridian campus through the counselor education curriculum.
The subject matter attracts both graduate students in horticulture and those pursuing advanced degrees in guidance counseling. The instructors are Julia Porter, associate professor of counselor education at MSU-Meridian, and her husband, Wayne Porter, an area horticulture agent with the MSU Extension Service.
“We have divided the course into two parts,” Julia Porter said. “The first part, which I teach, is devoted to counseling theories, design and techniques. Wayne teaches the second part, which includes the basics of botany, propagation and plant maintenance. We help the students apply what they have learned in conducting special projects.”
Students have 10 hours of fieldwork when they deal with actual clients to fulfill the requirements of their special project. They also are required to write reports on the project's progress.
Seven students are enrolled in the course and will receive three hours of academic credit.
“Our students have responded positively,” she said. “Some of them have already seen how the therapeutic use of plants has improved the life of an individual struggling to cope.”
As a healing technique, horticulture therapy gained widespread acceptance by modern academics following World War II. Julia Porter said individuals condemned to the Nazi death camps or captured as prisoners of war experienced such horror that conventional forms of therapy were not adequate. Therapists treating these patients asked them to grow vegetable gardens. The technique helped many patients to recover.
Horticulture therapy is appropriate for individuals of all ages and abilities. The repetitive tasks of plant propagation, such as filling pots with soil media or watering, are easily learned, Wayne Porter said.
“When a person, particularly someone with a learning disability or a physical problem, grows a plant and other people give compliments, then he or she feels a sense of accomplishment,” he said.
Horticulture therapy is used at some mental health facilities and nursing homes in Mississippi. Additionally, some hospitals are planning therapy gardens for patients who face long-term treatment of a chronic or terminal illness. Schools and other institutions designed for patients or clients with learning disabilities, emotional problems or physical disabilities are realizing the positive impact horticulture therapy can have.
“We've already given out more than 150 sets of plans for building therapy gardens,” said Wayne Porter. “Hopefully, we can expand our effort to reach people who are interested and want to get started.”