by Dr Caroline Jessel, Chair of Dandelion Time
I was a busy practicing GP in 2001, and one sunny May morning decided to ride my bike through bluebell woods as a great way to destress. As I rode I reflected on children that had come to my surgery recently with mental health problems. There was a little girl of 9 who came with her Mum who said she had obsessive hand washing and found it difficult to leave the house, 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. The parents were all desperate for help but also keen that their child “didn’t need a psychiatrist”. When I explained that the waiting time for proper help could be anything from 6 to 18 months they were despairing and asked me to prescribe something if possible. Naturally I was very reluctant to prescribe a drug to such young children given the lack of knowledge about long terms effects. I also knew from chatting to the parents that a drug was not the answer. In fact the problem, when you dug a bit deeper, was in the whole family, their situation in life and the relationship issues surrounding the child. Indeed, if a child did finally get help from Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) they often came back to me saying how much they hated the experience and didn’t want to go back. I thought to myself there must be a better way of addressing these problems.
As I cycled through the lanes, inhaling the fresh smell of wet earth and young bluebells, I reflected on the joys of my own childhood. We had a lot of freedom to roam, often cycling or riding a pony many miles from home with no adults around, a chance to develop resilience and independence. We also helped on the local farm, hop picking, apple picking and rounding up sheep which helped to ground us in the rhythms of life. In the garden we grew peas and picked runner beans as well as taking responsibility for pets and learning all sorts of practical skills as a result. These experiences helped me to cope with the demands of school and later, work, and gave me a permanent, deep seated connection with nature. I questioned why it was that so many more children were now experiencing mental health challenges and wondered if the loss of freedom and the lack of intimate connection with nature was somehow part of the problem.
So the idea came to me when riding my bike of trying something completely different for children with difficulties. I also reflected on my experiences as a prison doctor in a woman’s open prison which had a farm and gardens. Over 25 years I had seen many women come and go to the prison and was struck by how many said they benefitted hugely from the experience of working on the farm. They had pigs to look after and many of them said how the relationship with the pigs became important to them so they forgot their difficulties and felt more complete inside. One woman who had been a prostitute and had experienced sexual abuse from her step dad at a young age said that if only she had had the chance to work on the farm at a young age she would never had 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.
Shortly afterwards I convened a meeting in my kitchen of friends and colleagues who might be interested in helping with what I called my “Farm Project”. We all agreed it would be a wonderful thing to do so I spent a while researching to see if anyone else had a similar idea and had made progress so we could learn from them. I soon realised that no-one had done what we had in mind so the only thing to do was give it go. Some of the early members of the kitchen table committee are still with Dandelion Time today, 17 years later! They include Graham Carpenter, (now CEO) Carol Bridges, (now therapeutic lead) Caroline Williams Jessel (now head of PR and Fundraising) and Viv Sullivan (volunteer coordinator).
One of the first organisations I went to for advice was the Blackthorn Trust in Maidstone. I had always been impressed with the work they did for adults with mental health difficulties which was innovative and humane so thought maybe we could develop a kind of “Blackthorn for kids”. David McGavin was in charge of the Blackthorn Trust then and offered great wisdom and advice over a bowl of vegetable soups and homemade bread produced by his patients and volunteers. He encouraged me just to have a go and see where it led.
One day I was having a family lunch in the garden and I asked my sisters and parents to try to think of a name which resonated with children but also connected with nature. I explained that Blackthorn had chosen the name carefully given the therapeutic powers of the blackthorn tree which produces sloe berries, used in ancient times as a tonic and laxative. After much discussion and laughter my sister came up with the name Dandelion and we all knew it was perfect. Children love blowing dandelion clocks to tell the time and it also has medicinal powers and the leaves are nutritious to eat.
Our first idea to raise money for the Dandelion Trust (as it became initially – the name changed to Dandelion time a few years later) was to send all our friends a packet of seeds and ask for a donation in return. We called the earliest stage of our work “Dandelion Sprouting’s” which began on Pympes Court Farm in Loose in April 2003. We had wonderful support from Colin and Virginia Duncanson, the owners, who completely understood what we were trying to do and volunteered all sorts of practical help, including time with Pip, the shepherd, who taught us how to use sheep and lambs therapeutically. Just two or three children per session initially, with their family, attended and we found the setting on a working farm provided so many opportunities to change the dynamic in the family and set the children on a different course, we knew we were really on to something straight away. Harvesting, preparing and eating lunch together using very fresh food from the farm became a critical part of our programme and still is.
So Dandelion Time grew and flourished. As we expanded we outgrew our little cottage at Pympes Court Farm so moved in 2007 to the lovely Elmscroft House in West Farleigh. As we now 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 had decided to do the washing that morning instead!