“It lightens the load,” said Ms. Lee, whose depression has led her to think about suicide. “It brings peace, so I do not forget who I am.”
The garden, on the scraggly outskirts of town, is one of seven in Fresno created for immigrants, refugees and residents of impoverished neighborhoods with mental health money from the state. At the Slavic Community Garden, Ukrainian refugees persecuted for their religious beliefs in the Soviet Union now grow black currants for jam, dill for pickles and soups, and medicinal calendula flowers from Ukrainian seeds.
The thinking of community leaders and health professionals is that gardens can help foster resiliency and a sense of purpose for refugees, especially older ones, who are often isolated by language and poverty and experiencing depression and post-traumatic stress. Immigrant families often struggle to meet insurance co-payments, and culturally attuned therapists are in short supply.
The budget, about $171,000 a year for construction and maintenance of the community gardens and adjoining meeting spaces here, is made possible by the California Mental Health Services Act of 2004, which put a 1 percent tax on personal income of $1 million a year or more.
Spending state money this way has been controversial, with some advocates for those with mental illnesss arguing that gardens are an unaffordable frill in an era of diminishing resources. From 1995 to 2008, the state cut $700 million a year in core mental health services like psychiatric facilities.
“Should they be a priority when there is no evidence of how many seriously mentally ill are served?” asked Curtis A. Thornton, a member of the Fresno County Mental Health Advisory Board.
The one-fourth of the tax proceeds that is designated for prevention, early intervention and innovative approaches to care finances a range of roughly 400 projects throughout the state.
Many immigrant and refugee cultures do not have a tradition of formal mental health treatment, said Rocco Cheng, a psychologist and a director of the California Reducing Disparities Project, a statewide policy study. “Therapy is a Western concept,” he said. “The Hmong do not have a word for mental illness.” But, he said, they are well able to grasp the idea of mental, physical, spiritual and emotional wellness.
On a recent morning, Yer Vang, 53, sang a plaintive song about loneliness as she worked her rows of “zab zi liab,” a medicinal plant used to treat high blood pressure. Across the way, Mee Yang, a 65-year-old shaman, weeded long beans beside makeshift scarecrows made of rows of T-shirts slung over a wire. She said she suffered from diabetes and depression and worried about making ends meet (about 45 percent of Hmong children in Fresno County live in poverty, according to a recent report by the Asian Pacific American Legal Center and the Asian Law Caucus).
“This is my happiness,” Mrs. Yang said of the garden. “You feel the world in this place, and it brings you back home.”
Four of the seven gardens are dedicated to Southeast Asians, many of whom were subsistence farmers in their homelands. The Hmong garden was established two years ago by the Fresno Center for New Americans, a nonprofit refugee organization. During the Vietnam War, many Hmong experienced rape, starvation and the murder of family members. Mrs. Yang survived by eating longleaf jungle plants, “the kind Americans put in the mall to decorate,” she said.
Ghia Xiong, a psychologist with the center, is willing to meet clients on their own turf. He consults with the gardeners over a shovel instead of in an office. He said the garden “de-stigmatizes” mental health treatment by providing a safe place to talk. “Many Hmong have been in refugee camps, where there was fear and intimidation,” he said. “Then they get to America and it’s ‘O.K., open up.’ ”
Neng Yang, an outreach specialist with the center, said, “Sometimes you’ll drop by and see three or four ladies crying together, rain or shine.”