As climate anxiety and mental health issues increase globally, Canadian doctors are being encouraged to give their patients annual free passes to national parks to enhance their physical and mental wellbeing.
Medical experts from around the world agree that mental health conditions are on the rise globally, with illnesses including major depressive disorder, PTSD, and anxiety on the increase.
Multiple factors have been implicated, from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, social media, and climate change all thought to play a role.
And while a range of psychotherapies and medications are available to treat mental health conditions, some practitioners are looking to nature as a solution.
Under a new health initiative in Canada, doctors can prescribe free annual passes to national parks for patients in a bid to help their wellbeing.
Canadian doctors already prescribed ‘nature therapy’ to help tackle mental health issues including anxiety, depression, and insomnia. This would generally take the form of advising patients to engage in outdoor activities, twice a week, for 20 minutes at a time.
But now, under the scheme created by BC Parks Foundation medical-led organization PaRx, in partnership with Parks Canada, they can hand out 12-month passes granting patients free access to parks in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Ontario, and Manitoba. It is currently limited to these four provinces, but PaRx is hoping to roll out the scheme further in the future.
It is based on, and supported by, a growing body of evidence showing how time in nature can have myriad positive impacts on health and wellbeing: according to PaRx, spending just two hours a week outside can improve heart health, boost energy levels, and even increase longevity. And when it comes to the mental health benefits, PaRx lists reduced stress and anxiety.
Indeed, this type of treatment broadly falls under the umbrella of ‘eco-therapy’, which mental health charity Mind describes as ‘a formal type of therapeutic treatment which involves doing outdoor activities in nature’. It can take place in both rural and urban settings, including parks, gardens, farms and woodlands.
Mind adds that there isn’t one single definition of eco-therapy, but that it is ‘often used to describe a regular, structured activity’ that fits a number of criteria, including taking place in a green environment, being led by trained professionals, and exploring and appreciating the natural world.
Speaking about the initiative in an email to NPR, Prama Rahman, a coordinator for the BC Parks Foundation’s Healthy By Nature Program, said: “Given the growing body of evidence that indicates nature time can improve all kinds of different physical and mental health conditions, we’re hoping that our PaRx program not only improves patient health, but reduces costs to the healthcare system, and helps to grow the number of people who are more engaged environmental advocates.”
Easy green tweaks
PaRx suggests it’s not essential to be part of the scheme to engage with nature in a way that could benefit your mental health. The organization has shared several ‘easy green tweaks’ people can add to their day.
Among them are booking a lunchtime walk in the park with a coworker, exercising outside instead of inside the gym, and opting for an active commute to work – preferably along a greenway.
Speaking in support of the scheme, Steven Guilbeault, Canada’s environment minister, was reported by The Times as saying: “Medical research clearly shows the positive health benefits of connecting with nature.
“I am confident this programme will quickly show its enormous value to the wellbeing of patients as it continues to expand throughout the country.”