• William Nichol

Nourish Your Mind, Body, and Planet at the Same Time

A continuation of A More Holistic Approach to Health and Sustainability, the following is intended to provide some direction in the quest to protect the planet through holistic health and community.

We often think about mental health issues as personal, private, and entirely individual. We are taught, at a young age, that they should be dealt with internally or in the privacy of a therapist's office. For many people, traditional therapy doesn’t bring about the kind of radical or enduring change they are looking for, and many more don’t even have access. Mental health issues are often a product of social isolation, a lack of social connection, and too much individualism, widespread and culturally embedded problems that talk therapy can’t always solve. What if I told you there are ways to improve mental health through social connection and collective action that benefit you, your community, and our planet simultaneously?

Civic engagement has been found to combat chronic loneliness and generally improve health. Research shows that volunteering, in particular, can benefit mental and physical health by boosting self-esteem and feelings of positivity and satisfaction. Volunteering can reduce feelings of isolation by fostering social connections and bring meaning and a sense of purpose to life, a lack of which often generates feelings of loneliness. Beyond personal benefit, by civically engaging, you can help rebuild social capital, increase interpersonal-trust and capacity for collective action in your community, decrease political polarization locally and ultimately nationally, and, all the while, work to combat social and environmental degradation. There are opportunities to engage all around us, but one such opportunity has been found to affect a particularly broad scope of positive change for individuals, communities, and the environment.

Photo by Elaine Casap

The power of community gardens

Community gardens are an incredible way to help provide nutritious food to underserved members of your community, relocalize and take ownership of your local food system, nourish strong and supportive social networks within your community and improve your mental health.

Communities of color often struggle with insufficient access to nutritious food. Black people are three times more likely to live in poverty than white people and two times more likely to develop diabetes. Community gardens can help combat this jarring disparity, a powerful driver of poor mental health and environmental degradation, by providing equitable access to nutritious food and helping marginalized and oppressed people realize their collective power. They are the ones bearing the burdens of corporate greed, who rarely, if ever, see the benefits of environmentally degrading corporate activity. If all communities had the power to protect their right to clean air, water, arable land, and nutritious food, corporations would have no choice but to act responsibly. Community gardens can be the start, a foundation for change, led by the people who know best what it should look like.

Community gardens not only strengthen community and grow local capacity for collective action and grassroots change but also have direct positive environmental impact. Community-produced food reduces emissions, toxins, and waste used during production and transportation and decreases community dependence on industrial agriculture, responsible for roughly one-third of global emissions. This is the kind of bottom-up change that our future depends on, and you can help drive it by devoting a couple of hours weekly or even monthly to a community garden.

In doing so, you will not only play an active role in critical social and environmental change; research shows that horticulture and time spent in green spaces can have myriad physical and mental health benefits. Physically, gardening requires exercise and encourages healthy eating. Mentally, gardening improves mood, relieves stress and anxiety, and aids in the restoration of connection with other species and the natural systems which sustain us. Gardening has long been considered a wholesome and therapeutic pastime, but it is important to note, from a scientific perspective, the bacteria in soil which we inhale while gardening quite literally prompt the release of serotonin, improving your mood.

Photo by Benjamin Combs

The more people that are involved in community gardening and agriculture across the United States, the healthier and happier we and our planet become. As supply chains shrink and energy demands fall, our communities become stronger, social networks of reciprocity and interpersonal trust grow, and polarization dissolves. Marginalized and oppressed people are nourished through more equitable access to nutrients; and, communities, together, begin to realize their collective power and develop revolutionary ambitions for the future. All this can be grown from one small plot. Join a community garden! Or, start one!

But, what if...

You don’t have the time or means of transport to get involved with a local community garden? They aren’t currently open for business or accepting in-person volunteers due to Covid-19? That’s okay. Ultimately, the important thing is that you find a sense of connection and purpose within your community; and, there are so many ways to achieve these ends. If you’re fortunate enough to have a yard, start growing this spring. There is also an incredible number of virtual volunteer opportunities at the moment. Volunteer remotely for an environmental campaign. Join an online community like SOKTI and connect with others who care about environmental justice, protection, and sustainability. Start a virtual reading group and raise awareness around the social and environmental issues impacting your community or those nearby. If none of these ideas appeal, Idealist and VolunteerMatch are great resources to help you find the right volunteer opportunity for you.

Though civic engagement can vastly improve mental health, it is important to note that many of us struggle with mental health conditions that might not be adequately improved through civic engagement, and that’s okay. Regardless, your mental health is important, and I encourage you to make it a priority for your sake and our planet’s.

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