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Fresh air and gardens improve mental health: natural remedies for patients and staff

Linda Ferro

Linda Ferro-Chartrand, RN at the General Campus Intensive Care Unit, often accompanies patients who are able to leave the unit to wellness areas such as the Butterfly Garden, between the General Campus and the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario.

Fresh air, open space, and warm sunlight peeking through leaves swaying in a cool breeze. Sometimes taking a walk outside or eating your lunch at a picnic table is just the right medicine – not only for staff, but also for patients.

Staying indoors for days on end, hooked to various machines – deprivation can take a serious toll on patients’ overall wellness.

“Getting patients outside for a while can help them feel like they’re not in a hospital any more. It gives them the break they need,” said Linda Ferro-Chartrand, RN in the General Campus Intensive Care Unit.

Research has found that experiencing nature is directly associated with improved mental health, so wellness areas around the hospital are vitally important. That’s why the new campus will have space allocated for greenspace, gardens, walking paths and contemplative areas. The hospital has committed to an open and transparent engagement process with the Ottawa community to determine how these natural spaces will look at the new campus, among other important issues.

“When patients can see something other than the same four walls of their rooms, it’s good for them,” said Ferro-Chartrand. “Getting some sun and fresh air can really boost their mood and change up their thoughts.”

When Stanford University researchers studied participants after they had experienced a walk through nature, they reported lower levels of rumination – repetitive thoughts focused on negative aspects of the self, a known factor for mental illness – and reduced neural activity in the sgPFC, an area of the brain linked to risk for mental illness.

Calming environments can inspire the sense of being away, a mental break that can transform negative psychological states to more positive ones. For staff, this means restoration from attention fatigue, which happens after working on tasks that require long periods of directed attention. For patients, experiencing nature can affect the number of symptoms they feel, their perceived general health, and their tendency to fall into mental states of despair.

“I’m definitely going to try and get out more myself and really take advantage of our wellness areas,” said Ferro-Chartrand.

Wellness areas are not only restricted to the outdoors. Kansas State University researchers found that patients recovering from surgery with live plants in their rooms had significantly lower systolic blood pressure, ratings of pain, anxiety and fatigue than patients in the control room without plants.

Contact with nature contributes to a healthy workplace, and has a proven major effect on staff. A study at the University of Florida found that staff who took breaks outdoors recorded significantly reduced perceived stress and an overall decrease in health complaints.

The World Health Organization predicts depression will be the second greatest cause of ill health globally by 2020. When simple acts like sitting in a garden are proven to benefit mental health, it’s important for staff to take the necessary steps to care for themselves as well as their patients.

The hospital presented a draft architectural concept of its new campus at a public open house in January. You can learn more and give feedback at


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  • claire chapdelaine says:

    Having gardens, paths and access to the outdoors for the new Civic location is great. As you noted, research shows that contact with nature has a very positive impact on mental health, thus on overall recovery.

    We are fortunate here at the General to have a good amount of green outdoor space around us. However this is not always easily accessible to patients and has been challenged by construction, development and parking. Any plans to enhance and further develop green spaces at the General Campus?

  • mbiesterfeld says:

    We know the importance of greenspace and nature to our mental and physical health which is why it is so unfortunate that parkland will be destroyed by the Civic Hospital development. Tunney’s Pasture or Lebreton Flats is a more appropriate location with lots of room for planting and creating new greenspace without destroying what little we have left!

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