All across the country, local governments, community leaders, and parks programs are recognizing the importance of encouraging open dialogues around mental health by providing local residents with resources that help them disconnect from the daily stresses of life and place an emphasis on their well-being. Data shows that making mental health a priority is a key preventative measure in preserving healthy, safe communities.
Promoting positive mental health in your community doesn’t have to be expensive or a difficult barrier to break. As the examples below demonstrate, sometimes all it can take is a connection between human beings, de-stigmatizing conversations, and time spent moving outdoors.
In major cities such as New York City and Los Angeles to towns as small as Valdez, Alaska (pop. 3,907), the Walk with a Doc program brings citizens together with a volunteer healthcare professional to go for walks in nature to promote physical and mental health. Throughout the walk, the healthcare professional spends a few minutes discussing a relevant health topic and then remains available to answer questions from those in attendance. Beyond the physical benefits of walking, the program helps improve community mental health by encouraging people to connect with one another, get active, and reach out to healthcare professionals in a casual setting without the fear of being stigmatized if they’re struggling with their mental health. According to the program’s founder, Dr. David Sabgir, a significant benefit to walking is that “anxiety, nervousness, and depression can drop 40, 50 or 60 percent”. Additionally, 90 percent of participants felt more educated since starting Walk with a Doc, and 71 percent get more exercise, while 93 percent feel more inspired to lead a healthier lifestyle.
Walk with a Doc is part of the ParkRx movement, which brings together park and public land agencies with healthcare providers and community partners to encourage people to spend time in nature with the goal of improving their health and well-being. Those hoping to start a local chapter can visit the Walk with a Doc website, which offers ongoing support, liability insurance, marketing programs, webpage development, and a merchandise package.
Image courtesy of Walk with a Doc
Josh’s Benches for Awareness was founded in Palm Beach County to honor the memory of a local 21-year-old named Joshua Nadelbach, whose life was lost to suicide, to highlight the importance of suicide awareness. Participating parks, schools, and cities across the United States can purchase and install bright yellow benches that are engraved with useful information and resources geared toward people who are struggling with their mental health and who may be reluctant to reach out for help. The over 60 benches and counting can be found across the country and are painted yellow so that passersby can easily notice them. The color is also friendly and approachable, and therefore they make people feel at ease.
Josh’s mother, Cindy Nadelbach, shared that after he passed, she was told he had been a source of support for several of his friends who also suffer from depression and anxiety, while keeping his mental health struggles to himself. “He helped many through their struggles and was a selfless individual. We want to have his legacy live on and we know he would want us to help save the lives of others,” she went on to add.
Image courtesy of Johnny Crosskey
Ohio’s Stark County Park District partnered with the Stark Mental Health Addiction and Recovery agency to design a “Mindfulness Walk” over a one-mile stretch at Petros Lake Park. The walk brings participants through ten different stations that promote aspects of positive mental health such as relaxation, focus and awareness, reflection, and embracing the present moment. Examples of stations include stacking stones, a Zen Garden, musical instruments, and a labyrinth, which have been created to capture the walker’s attention, have them forget about the stresses of everyday life and focus on what they’re experiencing. The stations include helpful prompts, like a suggestion to slow down and think about what the visitor is feeling troubled by before ending the labyrinth.
Stark Parks Education Manager David Pildner says, “the purpose of this walk is not so much the destination as the journey. You’ll want to take your time, take in nature, and stop at each of the stations to reflect on what that station is asking you to think about.”
“This is an example of a parks and recreation project that is saving lives,” Ohio Parks and Recreation Association’s Executive Director, Woody Woodward, said in a statement.