In 2016 the CDC found that one-in-six Americans was taking a prescription drug for a mental health issue. In 2021, after the pandemic had been wreaking havoc with our mental health for two years, that figure rose to almost one-in-four. By all accounts, both journalistic and anecdotal, we're still an anxious, moody, stressed-out nation (and entrepreneurs are  even more prone to mental health challenges than the general public). 

Perhaps we need some new approaches. Doctors abroad might have some inspiration to offer. As I have written previously, doctors in Canada and the U.K. have been writing prescriptions for mental health-boosting activities like going to an art museum or picking up a few houseplants with the aim of easing patients' anxiety and depression. 

It's certainly more pleasant than swallowing a handful of pills, but is it effective? Could something similar help America tackle its increasingly large burden of mental health complaints? A small new study, while preliminary, suggests that picking up a paintbrush or a bag of potting soil could be an alternative to a prescription for Prozac or Paxil. 

Building the case for art and nature therapy

There is an absolute mountain of literature that interacting with both the natural world and art is good for our mental health, and many therapists are aware of these effects. Art therapy has been well known for years and horticultural therapy is a burgeoning field. But making these interventions more mainstream and widely available will require a whole lot more data. This new study, recently published in PLOS One, is one step on that journey towards greater scientific rigor. 

"There is an extensive history and literature of anecdotal endorsements that engaging in gardening activities and horticultural therapy or people-plant interactions such as visiting gardens has therapeutic benefits," explained study author Charles Guy. "What seems to be presently missing is evidence from properly designed and properly controlled large-scale clinical trials."

To begin moving in that direction, Guy designed a pilot study that assigned 17 healthy women to an art therapy class and 15 to a gardening class, carefully measuring how the activities impacted their mental health. This is a small study and its results aren't generalizable beyond this particular demographic group, but nonetheless the results were promising. 

After eight one-hour classes "participants in both the art and gardening groups showed reductions in mood disturbances, perceived stress, and depression symptoms following the interventions. There was some evidence that the gardening group experienced slightly stronger benefits," explains PsyPost. And the more time the participants spent engaged in their target activity, the greater the benefits seemed to be.

DIY art and nature therapy 

This finding is a long way from most people being able to walk up to their local doctor's office and come home with a prescription for a figure drawing or bonsai making class (and having their insurance pay for it), but it is a probably healthful reminder that there are far more paths to dealing with mental health challenges than only a bunch of pills. 

While scientists gather data and policy makers dicker over who will pay for what, it's possible for entrepreneurs to take matters into their own hands immediately. Other studies show even a few hours a week out in nature can have measurable impacts on your mental health. Research confirms even just looking at a green roof or house plant can soothe stress. Similarly, making art (even if you're terrible at it) has been shown to boost your mood and soothe your mind.

The American medical establishment may take a while to come to grips with a more holistic approach to mental health care, but you can write your own prescription now. Take a trip to the garden or art supply store and engage in a little DIY therapy of your own.