Under the Glass: News from the Greenhouse

Leah Diehl

We are busy in the greenhouse this month planning and preparing for the start of our therapeutic horticulture programming. We expect to have a full slate of sessions this fall and look forward to seeing all the friendly faces of our participants and partners – we have missed them.

We are also starting a new program this fall for our own University of Florida students, thanks to a grant from the Love IV Lawrence Foundation. This foundation is working hard to change the conversation around mental health, and, in their words, this means “starting the conversation, as well as adjusting our vocabulary and how we label mental health issues and those suffering. This boils down to de-stigmatizing depression, mental health, vulnerability, sickness, and suicide” (Love IV Lawrence, 2021). One of the ways they pursue this important mission is to support organizations that are engaged in research, intervention, and direct action in the field of mental health.

Our therapeutic horticulture program was one of the fortunate recipients of their grant funds and we will be using it to help reduce stress and anxiety in UF students and to increase resiliency. And this is an important job because the number of college students struggling with mental health issues is growing. It was already on the rise before the pandemic began, and that has only exacerbated the problem.

Looking at the numbers, in 2020, 48% of students seen by UF’s Counseling & Wellness Center (CWC) reported that they had academic distress, up from 41% in 2016. Difficulty concentrating was reported by 70% of students seen in the CWC vs. 62% in 2016. Students seen by the CWC who reported sadness or depression rose from 48% in 2016 to 57% in 2020. Overall, the number of students seen by the CWC Center rose 32% from 2015 to 2020, with 5800 students, representing almost 10% of enrolled students, being seen in 2020 (UF CWC, 2016; 2020). 

Unfortunately, these growing numbers are reflected in most college campuses across the country. Between 2009 and 2015, there was a significant increase in the diagnosis and treatment of eight mental health concerns in U.S. college students with anxiety, depression, and panic attacks accounting for the biggest increases. In 2018, anxiety was the most common problem, affecting almost 15% of college students across the U.S. (Oswalt et al., 2018). A 2020 survey of the American College Health Association found that 30% of all college students reported that anxiety negatively impacted academic performance.  Stress was reported as an academic impediment by 39% of all students in 2020 compared to 32% in 2016. Additionally, in 2020 almost 24% of all students reported that depression was an impediment to academic performance compared to just over 15% in 2016 (ACHA, 2016; 2020).

The WBG Therapeutic Horticulture Program will use the grant funds to implement a program specifically for UF students that provides an environment for exploration of mental health issues while engaging in horticulture and nature activities. Educational and hands-on horticultural activities will explore symptoms of anxiety, stress, and depression, as well as dimensions of wellness including resiliency and sustainable self-care practices. We are partnering with counselors from the CWC who will join our sessions to help teach wellness strategies in tandem with our horticulture activities.

We are seeking IRB approval to study the effects of the program for students and quantify our results and we hope to be able to share our success with other campuses across the country. For more information on the Love IV Lawrence Foundation and their important work, visit https://loveivlawrence.org/

Have a healthy and happy fall, and we hope to see you in the Gardens soon!

Elizabeth “Leah” Diehl, RLA, HTM
Lecturer, Dept. of Environmental Horticulture, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences
Director of Therapeutic Horticulture, Wilmot Botanical Gardens, College of Medicine