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A Nature Prescription for Mental Health


Years ago when I worked with youth at risk, I admit that I took the occasional mental health day. Sometimes I just needed to be away from work because I knew it was the cause of my stress. I would almost always spend that day doing some sort of activity in nature like bike, hike, or cross country ski. I remember being very aware of my stress level lowering while I was out in nature as my thoughts would slow down, and I could refocus on what was most important and let go of what wasn’t. My regular weekends off didn’t serve me the same way as they were designated for time with my family and doing tasks around the house.

Even though most people recognize that working in child welfare can be extremely emotionally draining and there is greater awareness of mental health in that field, I still carried  some guilt about taking these days. It just didn’t seem like claiming a mental health day was acceptable.

So every time I took one of those days, I called in sick. No explanation needed and no questions asked. But I felt like I had to be careful not to get caught doing something that I knew I needed to do in order to feel better. If I was physically sick, I would be at home healing. But for my emotional/mental health, staying at home would have been the worst thing for my well being. I needed to get outdoors and do things I deeply enjoyed in order to feel better. At the same time, I feared that if people saw me in public, they would think I was “cheating the system”. They would tell me that I should use a vacation day if I was doing anything that looked like fun. So I had to be sneaky and deceitful, which in itself added an additional layer of stress.

This leads me to share one of the biggest frustrations I experienced when I worked as a therapeutic recreation specialist. So much of my energy was spent educating people, co-workers and clients, on the therapeutic benefits of recreation, play and nature. In my experience, most people (then and now) see recreation as entertainment, distraction, and filling time rather than recognizing its healing power.

But I am finally seeing a shift that seems to be happening. In this last year, I’ve read so many articles and books that point to the research that’s confirming the many mental health benefits of recreation and spending time in nature. The current edition (May 2019) of Outside magazine has this article title as their cover feature, “Special Report: The Nature Cure; Science’s Newest Miracle Drug is Free”. A new initiative in Ontario allows doctors to prescribe a free visit to the Royal Ontario Museum to treat anxiety, depression and other health conditions. If you’ve read some of my recent blogs, you know I’ll be doing my training next month to become  a Certified Forest Therapy Guide.

A shift also seems to be happening in workplaces in that they are more open to allowing mental health days without encouraging their employees to “call in sick”. I’ve had a couple of recent conversations with people who up front tell their workplace they are taking a mental health day and it’s accepted without the need for justification.

Since I’ve been self employed, I don’t have to ask anyone’s permission or get anyone’s approval to take care of my mental and emotional health. Instead of taking mental health days, I take mental health moments. Whether it’s a cuddle with my dogs or five minutes of sitting outside with the sun’s warmth on my face, I feel the healing. Compared to those times I choose to plunk myself in front of the tv for breaks from work, the play/nature moments are leaps and bounds better for my well-being.

These days I rarely feel guilty taking time to consciously focus on my mental health because I know it’s good not just for me but for my clients. The more attention I pay to healing my own emotional pain, the more I can be present with my clients’ emotional pain and support their healing process. My work doesn’t suffer because I step away from it to play. My work benefits because recreation does exactly what it says…it re-creates my energy, my focus, and my capacity for compassion.

From my perspective, there’s no better prescription for mental health than play in nature.

When I think about my strongest motivation for offering the upcoming Hooky Days, it’s to provide opportunities for healing and wellness by experiencing recreation in nature. Hooky Days are not intended to entertain participants. They are more likely to be slow than fast. More spacious than full. More quiet than loud.

Are are ready to give yourself permission to take a mental health day?

Are you ready to let yourself “play” on your mental health day or would you feel guilty having fun?

Are you ready to experience the healing/therapeutic power of play and nature (or better yet, play in nature)?

Are you a boss ready to endorse play and nature as a prescription for your staff’s mental wellness?

The first Hooky Day is Thursday, May 9 and follows with five additional Thursdays in May and June. Hooky Days are based out of my Nurtured by Nature Retreat and Playhouse in Pinawa, Manitoba, just an hour drive from the northeast perimeter of Winnipeg.

Click here for details and registration information.

If you are a boss/leader/supervisor and have a small team of staff (up to 6) that you’d like to treat to a Hooky Day, get in touch with me and we can explore the options.


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