Horticultural Therapy Connects with Youth at the Mental Health Center of Denver

By Susan Morgan

Photos courtesy of Carol LaRocque

Carol LaRocque Mental Health Center of Denver Horticultural Therapy Institute

Carol LaRocque, LPC, HTR, is the full-time horticultural therapist for youth programs at the Mental Health Center of Denver in Colorado.

When Carol LaRocque, LPC, HTR, began working at the Mental Health Center of Denver (MHCD) four years ago, she balanced her caseload as a youth justice therapist with dual responsibilities as a horticultural therapist. A passionate advocate for youth facing various life challenges, LaRocque has developed the MHCD youth horticultural therapy program from working with eight adolescent clients in a borrowed garden space the first summer to serving a range of ages at multiple locations in the Denver, Colorado, area. She recently transitioned to full time horticultural therapist in preparation for expanding into a new facility, the Dahlia Center for Health and Well-Being, opening in late 2015/early 2016. (Learn more about the new Dahlia Center.)

Using Horticulture to Connect with Youth

“Talk therapy doesn’t always work with clients, especially children,” says LaRocque. “There’s a limit to what we can expect.” So MHCD employs a variety of therapeutic approaches, including drama, yoga, art, play, and animal assisted therapies, with children and adolescents. “Horticultural therapy fits in beautifully with that,” she says.

Mobile HT office Carol LaRocque Mental Health Center of Denver Horticultural Therapy Institute

LaRocque frequently travels between multiple HT sites around Denver, so she transports all the necessary tools in her “mobile office.”

For young clients, many of whom have survived traumatic experiences, and who present impulsive or controlling behaviors, and emotional dysregulation, participation in horticultural therapy (HT) activities can help to alleviate symptoms. Getting hands dirty or eating new foods gives individuals who are grappling with uncertainty, opportunities to broaden their world and build confidence. LaRocque regularly travels between three primary sites and works with small groups of young clients on a range of seasonal activities, such as plant-based crafts, plant propagation using grow lights, and cooking and gardening with edibles, among others. (See how LaRocque describes the youth HT programs at MHCD.)

Current Horticultural Therapy Programming and Goals at 3 MHCD Sites

New Day HT Garden Carol LaRocque Mental Health Center of Denver Horticultural Therapy Institute

During New Day HT group sessions, youth participants exercise pro-social skills, such as listening, taking turns, and not oversharing personal information – as well as practice breathing techniques and journaling, among other skills.

The 500-square-foot garden at New Day Resource Center at the child and family services clinic in west Denver has a French Intensive style, with an emphasis on composting and earthworms. Participants ages 7-12 in the 11-week summer HT program grow organic edible crops and cook with their harvest during program activities, sell their produce, and take it home to share with their families. Group goals are to improve mood stability, manage impulsivity, and reduce anxiety through hands-on participation and sensory exploration. Organic gardening activities, in combination with “art, journaling, mindfulness practices, and field trips, help clients learn ways to take care of themselves and manage a variety of situations and emotions.”

The group goals of the 11-week summer program at the low income housing community across from the new Dahlia Center include “sharing and taking turns, following adult directions, learning new skills and trying new things, eating healthy food, and participating in outdoor activities,” says LaRocque. “Literally getting children out of doors during the summer months is one of the big priorities of the staff.”

Grow lights Carol LaRocque Mental Health Center of Denver Horticultural Therapy Institute

Grow lights in the Garden Classroom are used for plant propagation activities during group HT programs at the therapeutic school.

At the Day Treatment therapeutic school in east Denver, a hybrid academic and therapeutic environment for elementary and middle schoolers, LaRocque utilizes the multipurpose “Garden Classroom” and a small outdoor garden for the year-round program. She runs group sessions each week, with one session per classroom each week, Goals “emphasize pro-social skills necessary in the classroom, including respecting others, following directions, using safe behavior, demonstrating self-control, and participating,” says LaRocque. “Students earn points in each category, as part of a rewards-based point system used throughout the school.” At times, she also works with individuals as a reward for good behavior or who exhibit behaviors that necessitate an early intervention.

LaRocque utilizes the current MHCD electronic medical record system to monitor client goal progress. She records descriptive notes on the following four areas: (1) Consumer Response to Topic and Group Interactions; (2) Progress towards Treatment Goals and Skills/Insights Gained; (3) Follow-up Issues and/or Treatment Plan Change Recommendations; and (4) Risk Factors (if applicable): Assessment, Plan, and Actions Taken.

Weeds: A Lesson About Life Through Nature’s Metaphor

Every summer LaRocque offers a collection of activities on “What Makes a Weed a Weed?” “Weeds make a powerful metaphor for therapeutic ‘issues’ that come back again and again, and that we initially dislike, but which have lessons for us,” she says. “We search for weeds in the garden, figure out what their survival strategies are (deep taproot, barbs, huge seed bank, etc.), and explore how these might help each weed survive. We have similar tactics…Long taproot? Just like being stubborn and insisting we get our way. Stinging prickles? Just like getting angry and taking our aggression out on others. Make a million seeds? Speed up and get hyper and run around everywhere, instead of slowing down to solve a problem. Don’t take it too literally – just help the group think metaphorically about defense strategies. Then we look for the positive qualities of each weed: tenaciousness, beauty, drought tolerance, etc. Many weeds are edible or medicinal, or have long histories, and I’ll share those if I know them.” Then the group harvests various weeds to use in cooking activities – from adding portulaca to salads or making ice cream from dandelion root tea and other ingredients. “By the end of the session, the point has been made that weeds are just underappreciated plants, and our own personal ‘weeds’ might have useful purposes in our lives – making us stronger, more compassionate towards others, more committed to make good choices in the future, etc.”

The Future of Horticultural Therapy at MHCD

LaRocque is excited for the future growth of HT programming at MHCD. The new Dahlia Center will host a variety of wellness services for all ages and house a large public garden space with a labyrinth, HT garden with a “green fence” for privacy, one-acre urban farm with adjacent farm building for a pay-what-you-can CSA, and aquaponics greenhouse. She is already envisioning a “Feelings Garden” that features plants with names or characteristics of different emotions, such as sensitive plant. In addition, she is looking forward to serving as a resource for current practitioners and supervisor for HT interns – doing her part to help grow the practice of horticultural therapy.