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The Roots of Recovery

By Barbara Neuwelt
Network, Summer 2008

The fall is a busy time at Peace Ranch, a therapeutic farm for adults with serious mental illnesses. Participants are involved in as many as four fall fairs in the area around Caledon, Ontario, where the farm is located. The Peace Ranch is “quite a force” at the fairs, says program coordinator Heidi Torreiter, with participants entering their flowers and vegetables into many contests. The farm is also well known for the petting zoos it offers at the fairs. Participants spend the spring and summer raising the goats and sheep by hand, bottle-feeding them and training them to be child-friendly.

Established in 1990 and funded by the Ontario Ministry of Health, Peace Ranch provides supportive housing on-site for 10 people living with schizophrenia and offers a day program that is open to anyone with a serious mental illness. It’s the only residential therapeutic farm in Canada, offering residents and other people with serious mental illness living in the community an opportunity to develop self-reliance through participation in a farm community.

“When you have a mental illness you end up giving up all sorts of power,” says Torreiter. “Growing your own food or taking care of a flower or developing a relationship with an animal [is] a way of regaining some of that. You have your own garden plot and you’re in charge of it and those plants count on you to stay alive.

“And in the end there’s a huge reward,” continues Torreiter, “not to mention the social benefits of having something in common with the person that you’re working alongside and developing a community with.”

Green Spaces, a day program offered two days a week at the farm, allows people living in nearby communities to be involved in a variety of farm activities depending on the season, from maple syrup making in the spring to apple cider making in the fall. Participants are responsible for a communal garden that grows food for the farm and everyone has the option to have their own garden plot to grow flowers and food for themselves. They also care for the animals and the barn and train goats, mini-horses and a donkey to pull a traditional racing cart called a “sulky.” One afternoon a week, therapeutic horseback riding is offered, and on another morning an art program brings in local artists to work with interested participants.

“People are here because they’re looking to improve their mental health, but it’s not all about illness,” says Torreiter. “In this program it’s all about the things that need to get done today, and being out in the garden developing a relationship with each other and with the animals. It’s not centred around their illness. I think the bigger the place that your illness takes in your life the heavier it feels.”

The farm environment offers plenty of opportunities for rural recreation activities such as wagon rides, and the physical exercise of gardening, caring for the animals and chores is supplemented by hikes on the Bruce Trail, swimming at the local conservation area, and skating and skiing in the winter.

Torreiter grew up on a farm and was drawn to the idea that not only the connection with nature, but specifically a rural environment, can be beneficial for mental health in general. “I lament the build-up of the urban population,” says Torreiter, who connects urbanization with the high levels of stress people commonly report. “I think anyone can benefit from reconnecting with the natural world specifically through farming,” she continues. “So people that have specific issues with their mental health…what better way of embarking on recovery than to connect with the natural world.”

Shannon Hardie, a resident at Peace Ranch, agrees. Hardie lived in Toronto before coming to Peace Ranch last fall to make a new beginning after 10 years of living in a variety of boarding homes and supported housing. “I feel that the country has healed me,” says Hardie, “by taking walks in nature, by interacting with plants and animals. All of this has had an overwhelming effect on my performance.

“My thoughts are more lucid,” continues Hardie. “I attribute it to the relaxing nature of the Peace Ranch and to the fact that there’s not a lot of stress and there’s not a lot of distractions and there’s not a lot of noise and there is this lull that the house makes — it’s nurturing. There’s something to do with the fresh air and the spring water…and when you pick up the straw, the straw is fresh and it just excites my senses.”

Those who come to Peace Ranch are supported towards the ultimate goal of living independently back in the community. Weekly participation in PAR North, a Canadian Mental Health Association, Peel Branch clubhouse program located in the nearby larger centre of Brampton, helps prepare residents of Peace Ranch for eventual employment in the community through participation in non-farm work through the clubhouse’s café and clerical unit. It also allows people to stay connected to an urban setting and interact with a larger group of people.

In turn, other members of PAR North have the opportunity to spend the occasional day at Peace Ranch. “The members love going to Peace Ranch,” says PAR North manager Ron Hesas, “because a lot of them have never had a chance to be in that kind of peaceful sort of farm community so they have a chance to do some things that they’ve never had a chance to do like feeding the animals, horseback riding, gardening… Some of our members experience those things for the first time.”

In fact, Peace Ranch gets many visits from urban mental health programs. These visits give the core group of Green Spaces participants an opportunity to move into leadership roles, says Peace Ranch executive director Eric Tripp-McKay. “Instead of coming and being a client, now they’re actually helping to run activities and play host to the guests that come for the day.”

When you have a mental illness you end up giving up all sorts of power… Growing your own food or taking care of a flower or developing a relationship with an animal [is] a way of regaining some of that. You have your own garden plot and you’re in charge of it and those plants count on you to stay alive… And in the end there’s a huge reward, not to mention the social benefits of having something in common with the person that you’re working alongside and developing a community with.”
– Heidi Torreiter, Program Director, Peace Ranch

People with mental illnesses living in a more “built” environment can also find ways to connect with nature as an aspect of recovery. A community garden in the heart of downtown Ottawa tended by members of CMHA Ottawa Branch is doing just that. Gardeners meet in the spring to plan the garden together. There is no schedule for tending the garden; people come to the plot on their own time whenever the consumer-leader responsible for opening the garden is there. When the food is ripe people can take what they like but always leave something for others. The CMHA garden plot is just one of many plots in the garden tended by individuals and families who live in the area. The group meets in the garden once a month to participate in activities using materials from and around the garden, such as creating herbed oils or making wind chimes.

Most of the participants live in apartments and don’t have the opportunity to be outside in a natural environment, explains Paivi Kattilakoski, one of the project founders. In addition to the benefits of growing real food and seeing it come up out of the earth, the garden also provides CMHA Ottawa members with connections to some of the other plot-owners. “Seeing people interact with each other in an environment that’s so normal was really amazing to see,” says Kattilakoski. “What I see a lot with my clients is that sometimes the activities that they participate in involve other people who also have a mental illness [which is great but] it’s also really amazing when the participation can happen in the community at large.”

The garden also provides a recreational activity in the community for people who are extremely isolated. Kattilakoski tells a story about one person’s recovery through the garden: “One individual was coming to the garden quite often and he was quite isolated prior to that. And what the staff noticed, and other people noticed, was that at the beginning of the gardening period he would come in and not make much eye contact and not really have much conversation with people. But by the end of the gardening he would be making eye contact with people…initiating conversation, smiling a lot more. So really you could see that his self-esteem was increasing through the process. I really think that the community garden played a big role in that.”

For the past few summers Green Spaces has taken on a new challenge – running a market garden and growing some vegetables for sale to several big customers in the area. Green Spaces participants were invited to apply for paid positions that are responsible for growing, harvesting and delivering the crop. This summer they hope to expand the program to increase the customer base and provide employment for more people.

Living and working on a farm “gets you back in tune with the life cycle,” says Green Spaces and property manager Jim Hotson. “People with a mental illness will dwell in the past or the present but being here forces you to think of the future because you sow in the spring and in the fall you preserve it for use in the winter.

“It gets [people] to look ahead,” explains Hotson, “and it gets to all of our basic needs…having food to eat and the pleasure you get from growing your food and the reaping.”

“The duties that we have here of doing chores every day has made me feel more responsible,” says Hardie. “I appreciate the routine of getting work done at 9:30 in the morning. It gives me a routine…a grounding place.”

Visit Peace Ranch online at

Barbara Neuwelt is a policy analyst at CMHA Ontario.

Horticultural Therapy

Horticultural therapy involves engaging people in growing and using plants as part of their healing process. Horticultural programs have been developed for a wide variety of addiction and mental health problems. The interaction between the client and the plant world promotes healing in a variety of ways:

  • the setting of the garden provides an environment of safety;
  • the physical activity and the vitamin D from the sun help with mood and healing;
  • the scents of certain plants work directly on the brain to lower anxiety and stress and to stabilize mood.

Working with the plants provides hope and meaning and is not just “busy work,” says Mitchell Hewson, a registered horticultural therapist and the manager of horticultural therapy at Homewood Health Centre in Guelph. People learn to nurture their inner and outer body as they learn to grow plants for food, learn about nutrition and the healing power of herbs, and create creams and spritzers to soothe the body. The skills gained build confidence and promote self-esteem and provide participants with tools they can use at home for their own healing.

For more information about horticultural therapy and workshops for those who work in the mental health field, visit Hewson’s website

Toronto versus the Peace Ranch

The Peace Ranch is a marvelous place where opportunities abound. People here are friendly and responsive. There are things to do. As a city dweller for most of my life, I’ve yet to encounter a warm place so full of ways of applying oneself as I have at the Peace Ranch. One suffering of the psychiatric survivor is idleness and limited access to activity. The Peace Ranch changes this. It is a hubbub of action. But we also have down time or time alone.

The Peace Ranch gives inclusion and action to the life of the consumer/survivor. There is an arts program, a recreation program, barn duty, dinner prep, daily house chores and consultation. This in turn prepares one for independent living. People are not bound to boarding homes for the rest of their lives and can see themselves as functioning, active citizens. There is a day program at an employment outreach centre and a mall outing once a week. We are active and social participants who interact with other clients in group programs and the community at large on outings.

Today is the day of the client-centred, client-driven model and the Peace Ranch is an official representative of this practice. The Peace Ranch offers activity, support, encouragement and respect. Peace Ranch allows people to dream, and backs up those dreams with the support and services needed to realize them.

Shannon Hardie, Peace Ranch resident.

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