One sunny morning in May 2001, I set off on my bicycle through the bluebell woods. It was the beginning of a journey that was to alter the course of my life in helping children’s emotional wellbeing and transforming the lives of hundreds of families.
The challenges of finding children’s mental health support
At the time I was a busy GP and found cycling an opportunity to reflect, unwind and awaken the senses. As I cycled, I thought about the children who’d recently come to my surgery with mental health difficulties. There was a little girl of 9 with obsessive hand washing, who found leaving the house difficult; a boy of 8 who was refusing school and said he was depressed; a child of 10 who couldn’t cope with the bullies at school and another child on the brink of school exclusion for aggressive behaviour. Their parents were desperate for help, but confident that their child “didn’t need a psychiatrist”. I explained the waiting time for children’s mental health support could be anything from 6 to 18 months; they were despairing, asking for me to prescribe something. I was very reluctant to do this for children so young . The drug might treat the symptoms, but wouldn’t address the root cause of the mental health difficulties these children were experiencing. In fact, when I dug a bit deeper, the difficulty often sat within the family, their circumstances and the relationship issues surrounding the child. If a child did finally get support from Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), they often came to me expressing how much they hated the experience and didn’t want to go back. I knew that there must be a better way of addressing these problems.
What lessons from nature could be learnt for children?
As I cycled through the woods, I reflected on my own childhood. We had the freedom to roam on bicycles and ponies, developing resilience and independence. My siblings and I helped on a local farm – hop picking, apple picking and rounding up sheep – which grounded us in the rhythms of rural life. We grew peas, picked runner beans, took responsibility for pets and learned all sorts of practical skills. These childhood experiences helped me cope with the demands of school and work, and gave me a permanent, deep seated connection with nature. I questioned why it was that so many more children were experiencing mental health problems. Was the loss of freedom and lack of intimate connection with nature part of the problem? I also thought about my 25 years as a prison doctor, working within a women’s open prison with a farm and gardens. I’d been struck by how many prisoners said they had felt mental health benefits from working on the farm – it seemed like a form of nature-based therapy. They had pigs to care for which became so important to many that they then forgot their difficulties and felt more complete inside. One woman, who’d been a sex worker and sexually abused as a child by her step-dad, said if she’d had the chance to work on the farm at a young age, she’d never have got into trouble. I felt it was both sad and wasteful of resources that people were discovering the answer to their deep-seated troubles whilst in prison; it would be so much better for them and society if they had early opportunities to heal themselves. So on that day, when I was riding my bike, the idea came to me – to try something completely different for addressing children’s mental health issues and to help their parents struggling in the various ways I was witnessing in my surgery.
How my idea for improving children’s emotional wellbeing was sown
I convened a meeting in my kitchen for my “Farm Project” and shared my ideas with friends and colleagues. I spent a while researching to see if we could learn from any similar ideas but realised no-one had done what we had in mind. The only thing to do was try it out. I asked the Blackthorn Trust in Maidstone for advice. I’d always admired their innovative work with adults with mental health difficulties. David McGavin, the then lead GP, offered great wisdom and advice over a bowl of vegetable soup and homemade bread made by his patients and volunteers. He encouraged me give it a go and see where it led. The now established ‘Kitchen Table’ committee set about turning the ‘farm project’ idea into reality. Graham Carpenter and Saskia Renkema volunteered to pilot a few sessions, so that left us needing a name, some ‘seed’ capital and a site.
At a family lunch in my garden, I invited everyone to think of a name that for them resonated with children and connected with nature. My sister came up with the name “Dandelion” and it was perfect. Children love blowing dandelion clocks to tell the time; it also has medicinal powers and the leaves are nutritious to eat.
To raise money, we sent all our friends a packet of dandelion seeds and asked for a donation in return. Our friends were generous and supportive, and we raised enough money to fund our pilot “Dandelion Sprouting’s” .
We began on Pympes Court Farm in Loose in April 2003. We had wonderful support from the farmers Colin and Virginia Duncanson, who completely understood what we were trying to do. They volunteered all sorts of practical help, including time with Pip, the shepherd, who taught us about animal therapy and how to work with the sheep and lambs. A few children attended these initial nature-based therapy sessions with their families, harvesting, preparing and eating lunch together. Using very fresh food from the farm became a critical part of our programme and still is. We found the setting on a working farm provided so many opportunities to change the dynamics in the family and set the children on a different course. We knew we were on to something straight away.
So Dandelion Time grew and flourished and, as we expanded, we outgrew our little cottage at Pympes Court Farm. In 2007, we moved to the lovely Elmscroft House in West Farleigh. Now here we are 17 years later, with some of the Kitchen Table committee still heavily involved. They include Graham Carpenter, our CEO, Carol Bridges, Lead Child and Family Practitioner, Caroline Williams Jessel, Head of PR and Fundraising, and Viv Sullivan, HR and Volunteer Coordinator. This experienced team are highly skilled in working with attachment disorders and the effects of complex trauma in children.
As we embark on a new phase of expansion across Kent, I can look back to that creative bicycle ride and wonder what would have happened if I’d decided to do the washing that morning instead!