Walk in the woods helps youth with mental health issues


Getting young mental health patients out of hospital rooms and into nature
By Linda Ward, CBC News

A walk in the woods is good for the soul. For many, it may even improve mental health.

That’s the premise of the Mood Walks program being offered by forty different agencies across the province, including Rouge Valley Health System and Parks Canada.

The program is meant for young people with mental illnesses, and the aim is to get patients out of hospital rooms and into the outdoors.

Staff from Rouge Valley and Parks Canada are leading guided walks for youth aged 13 to 24 enrolled in the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Program at Rouge Valley Health System.

“They’re dealing with things like depression, anxiety, maybe trauma and psychosis,” said Stephanie Francois, a social worker with the program.

The walks are an hour to 90 minutes in length, extending around the hospital and out into the parks system, where patients become explorers.

“We have some different themes where we teach people how to get out into the outdoors, enjoying urban wildlife, urban forests, just getting back into nature,” says Francois.

The program is funded by the province, and run by the Canadian Mental Health Association, Ontario, which trains community mental health organizations to offer the program. All participants receive Safe Hiker training from Hike Ontario.

‘Big smiles on their faces’

Francois says the program helps patients dealing with some serious illnesses and challenges.

“We have some youth who are very isolated. They’ve had to come out of school, some of them, or they’re dealing with some very strong medications that are causing a lot of side effects and the actual illness that they are dealing with.”

The walks help them reconnect, and shift their focus way from their problems.

“They’re going outdoors into the fresh air and it’s helping them feel more like a regular kid, not a mental health patient who has to go to an appointment and they’re really enjoying being with safe people who they know and trust.”

Sometimes that can be the best medicine.

A 2015 Stanford-led study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, found a 90 minute walk in a nature setting, as opposed to an urban setting, showed ‘decreased activity in a region of the brain associated with a key factor in depression.’

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