Therapy at work down on the farm

Gould Farm combines therapeutic treatment with the rigorous work of running a farm, writes ROSE DOYLE

Gould Farm combines therapeutic treatment with the rigorous work of running a farm, writes ROSE DOYLE

SOME THINGS about Gould Farm are blindingly obvious: the serene beauty of its 650 acres of pasture and woodlands, the healthy delights of the food from its kitchen, its organic produce, prizewinning breads, tall maple trees.

What is not so obvious is that Gould Farm, in an area of western Massachusetts known as the Berkshires, is home to a community of some 150 people and that everyone – from infants to those who could be their grandparents – is integral to the self-sufficiency and ongoing life of the farm.

Everyone includes, very particularly, Gould Farm’s 45 or so guests, adults with mental illness who are the farm’s raison d’être. Licensed by the state of Massachusetts and fast approaching its centenary year, Gould Farm is the oldest of America’s residential therapeutic communities. Non-profit making, it is also the most successful and a definite prototype – volunteer interns come from around the world.


The Gould Farm concept is deceptively simple: a psychosocial treatment programme combined with the rigorous, everyday, round-the-year work of running a farm. Tried, tested and much studied, its clinical work community programme helps guests rebuild lives lost to emotional, psychological, psychiatric and often addiction difficulties by giving them the time, support and structures to develop strengths and abilities. Guests, staff and volunteers work together to build treatment plans, set goals and decide how these can be achieved. It’s a programme which returns dignity and hope and, through a further, transitional programme in Boston, independence.

Guests, most of them aged between 18 and 30, come from across the US and from further afield, too – a young Irishman completing the programme says Gould Farm “changed my life, helped me to focus on being more active and involved with day-to-day living”. He also admits, with a confidence and clarity learned at Gould Farm, that his life “was a mess before I came; now I’m working on positive things. This is a positive community, they keep you busy and you make good friends. It’s got me back into the way of studying, ready for college and a future.”

The programme, including transitional time in Boston, can take three years. Guests who move to Boston share a community house from where, with the support of clinical staff, they go on to work or study. After that there’s a non-residential extended community programme. Alumni, too, are encouraged to keep in touch.

Visiting Gould Farm, it’s impossible not to feel a part of things; community is all and community includes everyone, even the visitor. It’s a warmly welcoming place, busy and thoroughly rooted in today’s world. Rooted too in the beliefs of its pioneering social reform founders, Will and Agnes Gould who, in 1900, came up with a plan for emotional rehabilitation based on the principles of “respectful discipline, wholesome work and unstinting kindness”. In 1913 they borrowed $1,000, put a down payment on what was then wildly uncultivated land and, with family members and an initial eight guests, got Gould Farm up and going.

People who work at Gould Farm tend to stay, and stay. Donna and Wayne Burkhart have been at the heart of the farm for 25 years and have reared their family there. Donna affirms that “community is the key. Put together with structured work and a sense of belonging it is as essential to wellbeing as therapy. To be well people need the wholeness of community, as well as work within the community that is meaningful and gives them a sense of their strength. Time is so important too; people need time to rebuild their lives. It’s a slow, solid process.”

Would it work here? A facility like Gould Farm, according to psychiatrist Prof Ivor Browne, is what is missing in this country’s mental health service. After 50 years at the forefront of psychiatric care he is convinced that just such a residential, therapeutic community “is the big vacuum in the services. Community, together with farming as a tie to nature, is the key to mental health. We’re social animals. We need to relate to others in a personal context and relate to nature because it’s in our nature to do so.”

Gould Farm, working on that balance for 97 years now, is a community as close as you’ll find to humanity’s beau ideal. There is warmth and fun there, kindness and laughter, understanding, questioning, a daily struggle, hard work, every kind of person you can imagine.