In July 2017, Centre for Mental Health sought to inspire a thousand conversations about mental health by sponsoring the RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show garden, On the Edge. Designed by Frederic Whyte and built by our co-sponsors, Benton Landscapes, On the Edge told a personal story about mental health to which the thousands of people who saw it responded in many different ways.
We asked visitors to the garden a single, simple question. ‘What do you do for your wellbeing?’ We wanted to find out how people look after their own mental health: to crowd-source ways of supporting our wellbeing without imposing answers of our own. Over the course of the week, some 454 different people wrote on a luggage label what they did for their wellbeing. We received responses from people of all ages, from young children to those of retirement age. Some wrote single-word answers, others wrote more. Some found it an easy exercise and others found it challenging to think about how they look after their mental health. And all were anonymous.
In the week following the show, we read all 454 labels in order to understand how people look after their wellbeing. The results are fascinating. They show the diversity of things we all do to look after our mental health: that there are no ‘right’ answers for everyone and that looking after wellbeing is a deeply personal exercise for each of us.
Many of the things people told us about involved quiet reflection and contemplation. From spending time outdoors watching nature to meditation and mindfulness, for more than 100 people the main activity they undertook for their wellbeing involved pausing for thought, calm and in some cases practising their faith:
“…Taking 10 minutes every day to myself to clear my mind…”
“Taking time to smell the roses and to take a breath.”
“The beauty of the natural world helps us to reconnect to our souls.”
“Having alone time sometimes…with a big busy family it’s nice to have some time out for me.”
“Taking one day at a time rather than pre-planning too much.”
“Mindfulness helps me in a busy and hectic job. Nature also brings me peace…”
For others, spending time with other people – most often family and friends – was their main activity to look after their wellbeing. Many spoke about the importance of close relationships, friendships and social activities to their mental health.
“Speaking to friends and family. Not believing your thoughts are always true.”
“Remembering I am loved and surrounded by good people – reaching out and connecting.”
“Take time to listen and have time for family and enjoy every precious moment you can spend together. Never take for granted that everyone is ok.”
“Free time with my friends to have fun and not stress about life.”
Physical exercise was widely cited as an important contributor to wellbeing by more than 90 people. Walking, running, swimming and other physical activities (predominantly outdoors, picking up the importance of being close to nature) were key for many people’s wellbeing. Smaller numbers also mentioned a range of other hobbies, interests and (particularly in the case of children) play to enhancing their wellbeing.
“After battling with anorexia…putting my ice skates on and gliding along the ice letting all the tensions and worries flow away.”
“Getting outdoors helps my anxiety disorder – walking, cycling or even just sitting in fresh air.”
“Being in Nature is so restorative and curative. I need to walk every day in woods to maintain balance.”
“Going for walks…with my son where we can talk together and he will open up about his feelings.”
“I run every morning when I get up. This sets me up for the day and clears my thoughts.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly at a flower show, gardening was cited by at least 100 contributors as helping their wellbeing: some described the value of working in a garden to their mental health, noting the way it relieved stresses and helped them cope with difficulties in their lives.
“Spending time in my garden planting new plants and nurturing existing ones helps me to relax and unwind.”
“My plants and my flowers are the best medicine. I get lost for hours and [it] clears my mind.”
“I suffer from depression and my garden always makes me feel uplifted – nature is a healer.”
“I joined a gardening club at an allotment being threatened with property development… I am a beginner but I spend hours/days there… It is immensely satisfying, calming and is very therapeutic for me.”
“Spending time at my allotment. Time flies while I’m there. I forget the world.”
“After postnatal depression the only hope I had was to go outside to look after my garden. It helped me to look after other things that were much simpler.”
“My garden is my sanctuary, the best therapist in the world…”
For some people, talking about mental health, receiving therapy and helping others through difficult times was a focus of their wellbeing. Some spoke about their own or a family member’s experiences of mental illness and how they had been on a journey like the one ‘described’ by the garden.
“Talk, talk, talk! Everyone is going through something – seek help.”
“…We are drowning in advertising, marketing, pushing us ever more towards consumerism… The greatest joy comes from giving…”
“After years of alcohol and drug abuse I asked for help. I realised that I wasn’t alone and that others hurt, too. Sharing with others has silenced my demons…”
Together, the messages we received during the week show the many different but interconnected ways people look after their mental health. They show the value of relationships and connections but also the importance of quiet and solitude for many people. They show the importance of physical activity, of being close to nature, and of nurturing: be it other people, pets or plants. There is little distinction between what people who acknowledged having had mental health difficulties do for their wellbeing and what helps those who did not: with a recognition that all of us can experience difficulties and we all need support from time to time.
The 454 people who told us how they look after their wellbeing are not, of course, a statistically significant sample of the population. But the diverse answers they gave to our simple question is a reminder that we all have ways of looking after ourselves and that supporting our mental wellbeing is an essential part of human life.
With special thanks to all of the visitors to Hampton Court who took the time and care to tell us about what helps their wellbeing and to the brilliant Centre staff and volunteers who asked the question and compiled the responses.