Growing a community
To the practitioners at the Wester Hailes Community Herbal Clinic, “Medicine of the people” is a phrase which means exactly what it says. It is an initiative to create more affordable, person-centred herbal care with its roots – quite literally – in the local community.
The herbs which are used are sometimes locally foraged but are also often grown by volunteers in their own gardens or allotments. This sort of ‘outsourcing’ is not only cost-effective but promotes just the sort of community participation which is at the heart of the clinic’s approach.
It would hardly be surprising that the clinic, recently crowned the UK Herbalism in the Community winner at the Herbal Medicine Awards 2021, organised by the National Institute of Medical Herbalists, owes a lot to its links with the local community. What makes it so deserving of the award is what it gives back.
The Wester Hailes Clinic was set up in 2015 by Grass Roots Remedies, a workers’ co-operative dedicated to making herbalism accessible to everyone. What this means in practice for the residents of Wester Hailes, is a clinic which regularly provides low-cost and often free herbal care to the locals.
It does more for its visitors than that. One visitor to the clinic described it as having elements of a counselling session. Here, making a person feel truly listened-to provides undoubted benefits to a person’s mental health even before any herb has been taken.
The people coming to the clinic may be suffering from depression, anxiety or the sort of trauma which most of us would struggle to imagine. They may have hormonal or digestive issues or even suffer from chronic pain. The herbal treatments they receive are grown in the local community, not just by volunteers, but sometimes by the patients themselves.
The clinic runs free workshops which teach people how to sustainably forage a wide variety of local plants and how to turn those plants into medicines. By engaging the local community in their own healthcare, the clinic promotes a sense of belonging which goes much further.
The feedback is hugely positive. One example of this outreach is the CommuniTea project which brings local residents together in the Calders gardens to make herbal teas that they can then take home with them.
One resident called Claire sees the place as somewhere that she can connect with like-minded people when she might otherwise just be alone. Kevin, another resident, was in no doubt about the benefits to his mental and physical health from participating. He even said that he was now talking to people who before, had simply been strangers that he’d passed in the street for years.
It is hard to describe the impact that these seemingly small things can have, but there is no mystery to how they came about. It is fundamentally about building connections.
Ally Hurcikova, one of the clinic’s managers and its founder, has a clear message to other medical herbalists like her who want to pursue similar projects, saying that it is a big mistake to assume that people won’t be open to these ideas. This doesn’t just apply to locals who may have little knowledge or positive views of herbal medicine, but also to those working in conventional medicine.
It is quite common for people to see herbal ‘folk’ medicine as alternative to, or in competition with, conventional medicine. The staff at the clinic don’t take this view and see their work as complementary to the services offered by the NHS. The Wester Hailes medical practice clearly agree and make a large number of referrals to the clinic when they believe a patient could benefit from its services. That is a pretty sound endorsement.
For local GP Peter Cairns, the benefits are twofold. Not only are herbal medicines: “…very useful medicines in their own right, but attending the herbal medicine clinic can help our patients see their problems in a different light. For example, sometimes patients will be more receptive to messages around improving sleep, diet, or exercise from our herbal colleagues”
Dr Cairns also believes that the herbs being grown locally sends “a subtle but powerful message around the potential we have here, in our own community”.
This is especially important in the area of Wester Hailes which historically has been one of the more deprived communities in Scotland. As such, the clinic actively seeks out “people on low incomes; people suffering from chronic conditions; people in recovery from abuse, trauma and/or substance use; refugees & asylum seekers who can’t access GP services”.
Issues arising from deprivation have complicated reasons and so require multifaceted solutions. If feelings of isolation push people towards lifestyle choices which are damaging to their physical health, there is a limit to what medicine, herbal or conventional, can do for them. That’s what makes the person-centred approach with its emphasis on listening and engagement so important.
This holistic approach is also in the way the clinic operates. The clinic is situated within the Wester Hailes Healthy Living Centre, the first integrated health and social care centre to be built in Scotland. That brings benefits to those providing the services, but also the locals who can now access a wide variety of support under the same roof. Precisely because of this model, the clinic is able to more easily refer people to additional services including free counselling, food co-ops and other support groups.
For people who are traditionally ‘hard to reach’ in the context of social care, the clinic may be the first service they are engaging with in a while. From here, it can also serve as a jumping-off point for an individual to become involved in many other community projects. Two local residents who first used the project now work as volunteers in the dispensary.
Ally made the point that the clinic accepts the limitations of what it can immediately achieve. They understand that physical symptoms may well be just one aspect of the underlying condition, and perhaps arise from psychological damage caused by domestic abuse, grief or childhood trauma. The clinic comes into its own, not when it seeks to quickly solve a problem, but when it lays the groundwork for future solutions.
By turning up at the communal garden, people begin to make connections with others in their local community. In the same way that the roots give back to the soil they grow in, these positive community associations only strengthen as they continue. The nature of the process reflects the product.
Solutions don’t have to be exclusionary or incite arguments about what works best. The clinic works in partnership with NHS services and there is a synthesis between supporting the vulnerable and promoting self-reliance. People who never imagined they had anything to offer are empowered to participate and contribute and it provides what one local resident described as a “vital resource in an area of deprivation”.
Perhaps most importantly, through the clear and practical benefits that it brings to the local community, the Wester Hailes Community Herbal Clinic has won the support of many who previously would not have given herbal medicine the time of day. For that alone the clinic has been a success, and with all the other great work it does, it is a very deserving winner of this award.