June 24, 2024

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A qualitative study of the barriers to commissioning social and therapeutic horticulture in mental health care | BMC Public Health

8 min read

The aims of this study were to (i) understand the barriers to commissioning STH in mental health care and (ii) identify potential solutions to these barriers to support more widespread commissioning of STH services. The key themes that were produced from the data were issues around funding and workforce which prevented widespread commissioning of STH, a commissioning culture which makes it difficult to commission ‘non-traditional’ treatments, a lack of knowledge of what STH is and how it can be used, the services available, and a lack of [awareness of] evidence to support its effectiveness. There were a number of suggestions as to how these barriers could be overcome, most of which are likely to require systems-level change by both the NHS and VCSE sector.

In relation to funding and workforce, the continued reductions in funding for mental health care were identified as a key barrier to commissioning STH. This finding is mirrored in the recent evaluation of the Government’s GSP pilot, which identified unstable short-term funding and lack of system level support for the sector as a barrier to embedding GSP within statutory systems [22]. Furthermore, the recently established, ICBs, which were designed to support greater partnership working with the VCSE sector, have been asked to make a further 30% reduction in their running costs [30]. As a result, funding and resources for mental health services are likely to become even more stretched, further restricting commissioning of new services.

In the UK most NBIs, including STH, sit within the VCSE sector and are typically delivered by small-scale providers, allowing for a more bespoke, person-centred service [22, 31]. However, this approach makes it difficult for STH providers to respond to large-scale commissioning requirements and combined with the funding and resources issue, is likely to result in commissioners continuing to consider STH as a less viable option for mental health care. Thus, it is essential that STH providers work in partnership to demonstrate the ‘offer’ for services they can provide on a regional scale [32, 33]. This collaborative approach could be supported and facilitated through the use of regional nature-based VCSE networks such as the Norfolk Green Care Network [34] and the Reading Green Wellbeing Network [35]. These networks can promote partnership working between providers, become potential commissioning hubs and could enable providers to work together to apply for larger funding opportunities. Voluntary networks such as these could also help ICBs proactively engage with VCSEs but would need investment and support at the system-wide level to ensure sustainability.

Commissioning culture within the health service was also identified as a key barrier to commissioning of STH. Despite a commitment to increase use of personalised care, social prescribing, and community centred approaches for health and wellbeing across multiple Government and health organisations [36, 37], the NHS long plan [29], which outlines the key priorities from 2019 to 2024, does not embed the use of these approaches as priorities. Instead, it prioritises helping people to get easier access to therapy for common mental disorders such as anxiety and depression; despite evidence to suggest diminishing effectiveness over time and poor outcomes for some groups [7]. Without community-based approaches being embedded within national plans, participants felt they had limited capacity to commission the VCSE sector.

The recently published NHS major conditions strategy case for change and strategic framework [38] calls for a focus on integrated working with community-based partners as part of the future long term conditions strategy, and a commitment to accelerating research to understand how mental, physical, and social conditions interlink and how they can be treated. Given that services such as STH can target mental, physical, and social needs simultaneously [39], it is possible that this focus may result in increased use of holistic services such as STH. However, until the full long-term conditions strategy is released, it is unclear how these approaches will be embedded and prioritised. As highlighted by participants, for interventions such as STH to be successful, they need to be embedded at every level of mental health care, allowing multiple entry points into the VCSE sector. The trend for prioritisation of traditional approaches to mental health care, as also reported by Shanahan et al. [40] and Tambayah et al. [41], alongside the suggested reluctance of commissioners in decommissioning services and seeking new providers [21], also needs to be overcome to promote greater variability in treatment options.

Lack of knowledge and awareness of STH, in a variety of contexts, was highlighted as a key barrier to service commissioning. There were some perceptions that STH would not appeal to all individuals or that it was not suitable for particular groups, for example younger people. A lack of knowledge about what STH interventions entail and the level of mental health need they can be appropriate for, was also highlighted by participants, with some interviewees referring to STH as solely a preventative health measure as opposed to a treatment option for acute and chronic mental illness. Furthermore, a lack of knowledge and awareness of what STH provision is available was identified as a barrier to commissioning. Lack of knowledge of local services has also been identified as a barrier to commissioning NBIs via GSP [22] and for commissioning STH by clinicians [42]. As commissioning of new services requires significant partnership working between both commissioners and service providers [21], this lack of awareness of what STH services are available locally is likely to be problematic.

Shanahan et al. [40] and Fixsen and Barrett [43] highlighted that referral and commissioning of NBI is influenced by the knowledge and interest of the GP, termed “GP buy-in”. Thus, individuals may not be offered interventions such as STH unless their health care provider has a particular interest in, knowledge of, or belief in its value. This need for ‘practitioner buy-in’ is not aligned with traditional approaches where treatments are prescribed as ‘normal practice’ regardless of whether the practitioner has a particular interest in the approach. Providing a means by which practitioners can easily access information about STH services, such as regional or national directories of STH services, which enable identification of interventions across the UK and detail what they involve and who they are for, may facilitate increased awareness, knowledge and ‘buy- in’ of STH interventions. However, any directory would need to be fully embedded in healthcare treatment, referral, and commissioning systems.

An interesting observation that emerged from the data was also the tendency of participants to refer to STH as green “schemes”, “therapies” or “initiatives”, indicating a perception that all nature-based activities are equivalent as reported by Sempik, Hine and Wilcox [44]. This is problematic and is likely to compound issues around what types of STH services are appropriate for different levels of need. To address this barrier, a framework for aligning STH provision with the NHS’ five mental health levels has been produced, identifying what types of activities, support, evaluation, and quality assurance are needed at each level, along with examples of beneficiaries across the UK [45]. To support partnership working, increased understanding and commissioning of STH, this framework should be adopted widely by both the health care sector and STH organisations and utilised in the suggested service directory.

Evidence of the effectiveness of STH was mentioned by all study participants as a factor that influences commissioning. Whilst some referred to a lack of awareness and publicisation of the evidence, as echoed in Tambayah et al. [41], others reported a lack in quality and quantity, or a lack of evidence for specific mental health levels or conditions. For individuals at mental health levels 0 and 1, there are a range of systematic reviews and meta-analyses demonstrating the benefits of gardening activities [11, 12, 14, 15]. There are also numerous studies and reviews reporting the benefits for STH for individuals with symptoms of mental illness or diagnosed mental illness, aligning with mental health levels 2–4. However, in many cases this data is combined with data from individuals without mental ill-health, or for a range of mental health disorders [13, 16, 46], making it more difficult to isolate the evidence for specific conditions and those who require mental health intervention. Whilst studies focused on individuals at levels 2–4 with mild to severe mental illness have demonstrated positive effects for depression, wellbeing, quality of life and activities of daily living [16, 47], many studies fail to incorporate comparison groups or randomisation procedures. To further enhance the evidence base, well-designed, high quality RCTs are therefore needed, along with sufficient funding to support this level of scientific evaluation.

Whilst there is undoubtedly room for high quality RCTs to further advance the STH evidence base, other accepted interventions in health and policy fields in the UK have not been based on RCT evidence [48]. There is also a wealth of quantitative and qualitative evidence from the scientific and VCSE sector advocating the effectiveness of STH, much of which utilises measurable outcomes and describes the impact on the patient (as suggested by the study participants). Furthermore, an independent report by the Kings Fund [48] suggested that gardening-based interventions can have numerous benefits for individuals as an adjunct to their existing mental health treatment, whilst the Wildlife Trusts [49] demonstrated significant cost savings to the NHS if they were to invest in a ‘natural’ health service, with an estimated an annual cost of £534.1 million per year for delivery against a gross annual cost saving of £635.6 million. Thus, whilst there is need to strengthen the evidence base in specific areas, there is clear evidence of the potential benefit of NBIs such as STH to the health care system and patients. Furthermore, Wye et al. [50] reported that commissioners experience multiple barriers to using academic research to inform commissioning. As a result, they often utilise NICE guidelines, local evaluations, local clinicians’ knowledge, and service users experiences to inform their commissioning decisions. To support commissioning of STH, existing evidence and knowledge should be integrated into mental health care policy and practice, NICE guidelines, and be more clearly publicised and communicated to commissioners via effective dissemination methods such as infographics and via professional journals aimed at commissioners.

The findings of this study present the perspectives of nine individuals, from a range of commissioning roles and regions across the UK. However, the full range of barriers experienced by individuals with roles in mental health care commissioning may not have been captured. Further research in this field should aim to incorporate the perspectives of individuals involved in the development of mental health policy and NHS senior leaders who have a direct influence on funding decisions, to understand the barriers to prioritising approaches such as STH at a national level. It should also prioritise high quality RCTs for mental health levels 2–4 and for specific conditions, to develop a clearer and more focused evidence base to support commissioning of STH in mental healthcare. The potential solutions to the commissioning barriers highlighted in this research should also be actioned by individuals in health and VCSE sectors to further support the growth and commissioning of STH. This is essential for ensuring a more sustainable mental health system whereby service users can access support when it is needed.

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