This Maine Hospital Is Helping Kids Cultivate Well-Being with “Dirt Therapy”

At Bangor’s Northern Light Acadia Hospital, pediatric patients are prescribed sunshine and fresh air.

Acadia Hospital’s Shane McPherson
Acadia Hospital’s Shane “Mack” McPherson. Photo by Joseph David

Shane McPherson, a psychiatric technician known by his preferred name of “Mr. Mack” to his pediatric patients at Northern Light Acadia Hospital, never considered himself a gardener. But five years ago, when a heavy caseload preoccupied the clinician who’d established the hospital’s herb and vegetable plot, Mack’s department head asked him to take over. He was not a natural green thumb. “I’ve learned most of what I know from the kids and what they’ve heard from their families,” Mack says. “I collected my knowledge base, fact-checked a little of it, and learned more every day I got out there. Now, I can’t think of not being a gardener.”

“Dirt therapy,” as Mack calls it, is part of treatment that day patients ages six to 18 receive at the Bangor mental-health hospital, helping them combat anxiety, depression, mood dysregulation, issues stemming from bullying, and more. Acadia Hospital’s programming also includes adventure-based therapy in the form of a ropes course and outdoor games. “I love our clinical team,” Mack says. “But not much beats sunshine and fresh air.”

In addition to growing herbs and vegetables, Mack and his patients plant nectar and pollen sources to attract pollinators and have sensory gardens designed to stimulate the five senses and encourage mindfulness. “We have hens and chicks succulents because they’re rigid and prickly. We have golden stonecrop because it’s ground cover, and it’s very soft. We have lamb’s ear because it’s a nice fidget — and the bees love it,” Mack says. 

The River of Hope in the garden at Northern Light Acadia Hospital
The River of Hope. Photo by Joseph David

At the edge of the garden is a winding strip of painted rocks that staff and clinicians call the River of Hope, which patients ceremoniously cross when they are ready to leave the hospital. The ropes course is right next to the garden too — not by accident. “When a kid has an emotional high from the ropes course and they want a chance to healthfully bring their engine back down, they can step right into the garden and either work or just mindfully explore it,” Mack says. “Each balances the other out very nicely.”

In programs like Acadia Hospital’s, the goal is to increase patients’ competence and confidence, to help them become more engaged learners and better decision makers. “There is a time and place for worksheets and paperwork,” Mack says. “But I’ve found through my years of experience here that I get to talk to more patients about stuff that’s really important when they are lost in thought about a game or an obstacle or a plant.” Program participants are also encouraged to bring produce home. “Food insecurity is major in Maine,” Mack says. “It’s a passion project for a lot of us here to provide good, healthy options to our patients and their families.”

Mack’s goal is to extend the program’s growing season with the installation of a greenhouse. “It will go from a fair-weather garden to a 12-months-a-year group space and ‘dirt therapy’ center for all of our patients,” he says. “We’ve known since the 1600s how much nature helps the human spirit. It’s a lucky hospital that gets to prove it happens.”

For more about Northern Light Acadia Hospital’s day-treatment program here. 268 Stillwater Ave., Bangor. 207-973-6100.