Healing Gardens Planned for Eitanim Psychiatric Hospital

Monday, September 21, 2020 9:00 AM

“Spending time in natural green surroundings calms the mind and reduces anxiety,” says Jerusalem Mental Health Center Director Dr. Gadi Lubin

In partnership with JNF Canada and KKL-JNF Norway, KKL-JNF is replacing the shabby, walled-off exercise yards of the closed psychiatric wards with green, open-air courtyards that will heal the body and soothe the soul.
The fact that spending time in open green surroundings soothes the soul comes as a surprise to no one. Numerous studies back this up, but there is no need to delve into research reports – in our daily lives, we all feel the need to get outdoors, enjoy nature and take a breath of fresh air. Of course, this is equally true of people dealing with mental illness. This is why the Eitanim Psychiatric Hospital, with the support KKL-JNF Norway and JNF Canada, is replacing the crumbling exercise enclosures used by the closed wards with green, landscaped courtyards open to the breathtaking panorama of the surrounding Jerusalem Hills.

“Spending time in natural green surroundings calms the mind and reduces anxiety,” says Jerusalem Mental Health Center Director Dr. Gadi Lubin. He recalls his initial impressions from when he began working at Eitanim Hospital six years ago: “I was taken aback by the contradiction between the natural beauty of its surroundings and the walls that closed patients in, precisely during some of the most sensitive situations of their lives.”

Eitanim Hospital was founded in 1952, and initially treated tuberculosis patients before being transformed into a psychiatric facility. Today it has 170 inpatients, as well as outpatients who come for regular treatment. “Today the tendency is to treat people with psychological problems within the community itself. At moments of severe crisis, however, hospitalization can be vital,” says Dr. Lubin.

The patients, like the staff, come from all walks of Israeli life: Jewish, Arab, male, female, young, old, immigrants and native born. “A diverse human mix,” says Dr. Lubin. All these people have one thing in common: they are all coping with mental illnesses at the severe level, and many live with schizophrenia. Some display extreme behaviors, for example violent outbursts or suicidality.

The hospital gardens are attractive and well cared for, but they are not freely accessible to patients in the closed wards, out of concern that they may harm themselves or others. A visit to the exercise yards at these patients’ disposal today is thoroughly depressing: concrete walls block any views of the hills, and there is a stifling sense of being closed in. Even those who don’t contend with neurotic disorders such as anxiety and depression would be itching to break free from this dreary place.

Two pathetic benches and a concrete wall are all the women’s courtyard has to offer. Two of the patients are lying on the benches, perhaps in an attempt to hear the birdsong and imagine a better world. A little cat is licking up a yoghurt one of the patients has given him, a leftover from breakfast.

The men’s courtyard is no better. Plaster peels from the aging wall, and the tiny window that overlooks the view is grimy and stained. A basket hangs from one of the walls – and that’s it, there are no other facilities. A patient wanders restlessly round the yard, looking out through the window. “I’d like to fly out into the forest,” he says. “Look at the little communities around us, and think about the good people who live in them.”
Eitanim is the only psychiatric hospital in the country that has an entire ward dedicated to the treatment of severe autism in adults. But when it comes to their exercise yard, it’s the same story: Drab concrete walls that cut the patients off from the natural beauty that surrounds them.

Inside the hospital, there are workshops, classes and activities, but in the courtyards, there’s nothing to do, and the patients don’t use them much. The sound of builders hammering away energetically outside, however, is a harbinger of better times to come. With the support of KKL-JNF Norway and JNF Canada, the Mental Health Center is about to get a facelift. Three new courtyards are in the process of construction: one for the men’s closed ward, one for women’s closed ward, and a third for the Autism ward. These open-air courtyards, which will take full advantage of the magnificent landscape of the Jerusalem Hills, will include pleasant seating areas, shady corners, meeting areas where patients can host their families, and a range of exercise equipment.

“We’re situated in one of the most beautiful places in Israel, but today our patients are shut in behind walls,” says Ayelet Stephen-Kleid, an occupational therapist at Eitanim. “The new courtyards, where they can spend time outdoors, experience nature and enjoy the open air, the trees and the surrounding greenery, will have an amazing effect on their quality of life and their mental and physical health. On the rare occasions that we go outside with the patients, we see right away the beneficial effect it has on them. Their mood improves and they’re revitalized.”

The corona pandemic that has wreaked havoc worldwide affects Eitanim, too. “The pandemic and the economic distress that accompanies it have increased stress, anxiety and depression among many people who are coping with mental disorders, and it escalates the potential for crisis,” explains Dr Lubin. The fear that the virus may penetrate the hospital is ever present. However, although there have already been a number of Covid-19 cases among the staff, the virus has fortunately not spread throughout the hospital.

“In closed, crowded places the risk of infection is significantly greater,” emphasizes Dr Lubin. “This means that the courtyards will not only materially improve patients’ quality of life, but also perhaps save lives. Instead of a closed and crowded compound, we shall have access to a spacious and well-ventilated open area.”

All this is being made possible with the support of our partners in Norway and Canada. Together, we will create a healing outdoor space for the Israel’s most vulnerable.