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Physiotherapy and Social Farming

‘World Physiotherapy Day 2018 Physiotherapy and Mental Health’ - Physiotherapy and Social Farming

By Gráinne Flannery BSc Physiotherapy, MISCP

The link between physical and mental well-being in maintaining and restoring health is now widely accepted and the role of physiotherapy in addressing mental health issues is becoming increasingly recognized (Everett et al, 2016). The role of nature and ‘green care’, or a similar intervention called ‘social farming’, in delivering a variety of benefits across multiple dimensions of well-being is now well documented in the literature (Alcock et al. 2014, Leck et al. 2015, Bragg and Atkins, 2016). According to Social Farming Ireland[1], Social Farming is an outcome focused, support placement for people on a farm using the natural assets of the people, the place, the activities and the community to support a person to achieve some of their own chosen goals.  The farm is not a specialised treatment farm, but remains a typical working farm where people have the opportunity to take part in day to day activities in a relaxed and non-clinical environment. Social Farming is well established in some European countries, such as the Netherlands and the UK and the popularity here in Ireland has been growing steadily in recent years. This is driven by variety of developments such as the emergence of a social model of disability and the emphasis within mental health policy on a more holistic approach to mental well-being, on recovery in the community and on providing opportunities for meaningful participation in ordinary community life.

Research carried out by Social Farming Ireland (2018) explored the experience of 54 participants engaged in social farming here in Ireland. A wide range of both physical and mental health benefits were documented such as improved physical fitness and mobility, a sense of peace, relaxation and well-being from being in nature, benefits from participating in a natural productive activity but one that is not labelled ‘exercise’, a sense of achievement, improved confidence and a heightened sense of motivation. Occupational Therapists have been contributing to the development of Social Farming in Ireland for some years- supporting participants on placements, however there is also potentially a valuable role for physiotherapy in collaborating and contributing to the development of Social Farming in Ireland.

I was involved in an 8-week project whereby two participants with different health issues and special needs attended a ‘social farming’ placement on a small holding farm setting. Participants were service users from a local HSE day service and they attended the farm once a week whereby they took part in the daily activities and life on the farm such as tending to the animals and the garden, sowing seeds, planting vegetables and trees, carrying out small building projects, cooking and eating food together, and meeting and interacting with neighbours and the wider community. Most activities involved physical challenges- aerobic and strength based exercise, balance, gross and fine motor skills. Subjectively, they reported a sense of achievement with focused goals and activities as well as a sense of purpose with the variety of tasks and with the involvement of each participant in the community. The social farming model is intended to facilitate people to achieve their goals and encourage community integration rather than being a ‘therapy’ type setting; however,  the therapeutic benefits are continuing to be more widely documented. Physiotherapists may be able to further assist those with physical disabilities, special needs and mental health issues to avail of social farming placements and to potentially assist farmers in recognizing, understanding and adapting to their needs. This would in turn contribute to both the physical development and mental well-being of a range of service users.

 A National Social Farming Office (Social Farming Ireland) funded by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the CEDRA Innovation and Development fund, and based in Leitrim Integrated Development Company supports the national development of a social farming network. For further information


Alcock I., White. M., Wheeler. B., Fleming L., and Depledge M. (2014) Longitudinal effects on mental health of moving to greener and less green urban areas. Environmental Science and Technology 48(2) 1247-1235.

Bragg, R. and Atkins, G. (2016). A review of nature based interventions for mental health care. Natural England Commissioned Reports, Number 20

Everett T., Dennis M., Ricketts E. (2013). Physiotherapy in Mental Health- a practical approach. Oxford.

Leck C. Upton D & Evans, N. (2015). Growing Well-being. The positive experience of care farms. British Journal of Health Psychology.

Social Farming Ireland (2018) Growing connections, changing lives: Insights and learning from research on Social Farming across Ireland, Results from the Social Farming Research Project, Social Farming Ireland.

[1]Social Farming is the national support office for the development of social farming in the Republic of Ireland. It is based in Leitrim Development Co., Drumshanbo, Co. Leitrim and funded by the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine under the CEDRA fund.