Jo Wren is a woman who calms a room by walking through the door. There’s useful synergy between this and her job as co-founder of The Grow Project, who organise nature therapy courses for people with mental health and wellbeing issues. They’re mostly based at Saddlescombe Farm near Devil’s Dyke and, over the course of their seven year history, have helped over 520 local people confront their demons.
They’re a life-altering organization for many and Jo, whilst being self-deprecating and sweetly awkward at accepting acclaim for her actions, has been central facilitator in this. We invited her along to Hove Town Hall to chat about the history of Grow and why nature can be a powerful tool in the battle for good mental health.
Hey Jo! What are you earliest memories of nature?
I only started thinking this through recently. My dad and I used to walk for miles and miles in North Wales when I was younger. He was at his happiest when he was outside and I think he’s handed that down to me!
What do Grow’s courses entail?
Our main thing is a course called The Grow Season. It’s one full day a week for eight consecutive weeks. We meet in central Brighton and take people out of town - mainly to Saddlescombe Farm near Devil’s Dyke. They’ll do a variety of different activities: it could be walking, conservation work, shepherding or maybe something creative like wild art. The aim is to remove them from their comfort zone and find something in nature that inspires them.
We also work with businesses and organisations who take day courses with us.
What effect have your courses had on people’s lives?
I sometimes still bump into people from the first course – seven years ago – and they’ll literally say things like, ’Grow saved my life’. That can be quite overwhelming! It’s obviously incredibly rewarding but I also think that it wasn’t me who got them there. We provide a safe, supportive environment for people but the change has to come from themselves.
What is most people’s journey to Grow?
If you start feeling that you’re suffering from depression or anxiety, generally the first thing people say is go to your doctors. The first thing they’ll do is medicate, at a huge cost to the NHS. But it’s just a holding pattern really; you’re not truly getting “better”. They’ll then say that you should try talking therapy and put you on a waiting list and that might take another 6 months.
That’s a long time in someone’s life.
It is! That whole time they’re possibly deteriorating. Then even if you get talking theory it’s maybe six weeks, 12 if you’re lucky. There’s a real gap. I think we tend to be in the space people are not yet so bad, or where when they have gone down a difficult route but are coming out of it. We’re not a crisis group.
Do you think people in Brighton are perhaps more prone to mental health issues?
There are stats that show Brighton has some of the highest mental health issues in the country. Drugs and alcohol are a big problem here. Also, lots of people come to Brighton from other towns and cities and maybe don’t have support networks. They can then run into trouble. Isolation is such a big problem for many people.
Are your courses about connecting to other people as much as nature?
Certainly. When we started, we were focused on connecting to nature but one of the more important things is connecting to yourself. Other people are vital in this. If you were to attend group therapy sessions, meeting 12 people in a room can be really difficult. Meeting 12 people on a hillside is nowhere near as intimidating.
Do you think social media and 24-hour emailing is making it harder for people to unplug?
Absolutely. I think it’s really valuable to unplug. The internet and social media is an incredible resource and connects you with people in incredible ways. But we are bombarded.
And we’re always chasing the dopamine hits from social media likes and engagement…
Exactly. That feeling we get from a bunch of likes on our Instagram post is great! It’s natural to want those things but people need to know there’s other ways to get them.
There’s also a culture of always being busy too? As though if you’re not busy 24 hours, you’re not working hard enough?
Definitely! Recently I’ve actually only been working three days a week and I've deliberately kept that space. It can feel a bit lazy but it’s been so positive for me and Grow– I’ve had the space to think about things and where I want to go
How do you see the future of Grow?
We’re partnering with other groups and charities a lot more now. We’ve formed the Green Wellbeing Alliance with local similar-minded charities and there’s the beginnings of a community. I think that's the way small projects like us will thrive: stop chasing funding separately and club together. I don’t want to live in a world of competition.
We agree! Thanks Jo.
Check our previous entries in our ‘We ❤️ Brighton Heroes’ series